Not A Bright Idea


Q: Why are people arrested for pointing laser toys at aircraft?

A: They seem harmless, those pocket lasers we use to drive our cats crazy or to highlight a PowerPoint slide. But turn a 5-milliwatt device skyward at night, and it becomes potentially lethal.

That’s because a laser pointed at an aircraft can distract or “flash blind’’ a pilot, causing him or her to become disoriented. The effect usually lasts only a few seconds, but if it’s continuous and happens to be while a jetliner is on final approach or a sheriff’s helicopter is near a cell tower, the results could be disastrous.
“It’s not going to be the laser by itself that brings down a plane; it’s going to be a laser at the wrong moment in combination with something else, like an especially tricky maneuver or during an emergency,’’ says Patrick Murphy, who heads the International Laser Display Association, an Orlando-based trade group, and runs the website

“The laser could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.’’

It hasn’t happened yet, which is remarkable considering there were 3,960 aircraft “lasings’’ last year in the US, 326 of them in Florida.  The Orlando area had 37 incidents, ranking it roughly 25th highest in the nation. So it’s no surprise that if you get cute or careless with a laser, the authorities will try to find you.  Lasing aircraft is a federal crime, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

The FBI recently conducted a 60-day campaign in select regions of the country to draw attention to the problem, offering a $10,000 reward for tips leading to laser lawbreakers. No word yet on whether anybody collected, but an FBI spokeswoman says the agency noted a decrease in lasing incidents.

So how can a tiny beam of light cause havoc in the skies? As Murphy points out, laser light spreads out over distances, so the tiny 1/25th-of-an-inch dot your cat chases can become a 2- to 3-foot blob of light when aimed at an aircraft thousands of feet in the sky. Moreover, the light can potentially damage the eyes of pilots, particularly if the beam is stronger than 5 milliwatts. (It goes without saying that you should never point a laser at the eyes of anybody on the ground, either—that includes your cat.)

Helicopter pilots conducting searches are particularly vulnerable. “We’re flying at a lower altitude and we’re maneuvering,’’ says Master Deputy Mike Umbarger, a pilot with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office who’s been lased seven times in the last five years. “The longer you’re blinded like that, the more out of control you can get.’’

In two of those incidents, Umbarger was looking for—you guessed it—suspects who had already lased commercial flights near Orlando International Airport. But many laser offenders plead ignorance, such as the Volusia County student who lased a helicopter earlier this year and said he had no idea of the danger; he was fined and sentenced to community service. On the other hand, in 2012, a man who lived near OIA got six months in prison for pointing a laser at incoming jetliners 23 times over a two-month period. He said the noise bothered him.

And if you’re wondering why laser light shows at theme parks don’t blind pilots: The flash doesn’t come out of nowhere, because operators have to file detailed plans on the location and duration of their shows with the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Edit Module
Want to read the whole issue? Download and read this issue and others on Magzter.

Add your comment:
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags

Guides & Resources

2018 Premier Veterinarians

The 2018 Pet Guide: Pet Resource Guide

Here are some of the places you can go in Central Florida when you need supplies, products and services for your best friends.

Premier Realtors 2018

Let Orlando's best realtors help you find your dream home!

Orlando's Best Lawyers 2018

Our annual list includes hundreds of Orlando-area attorneys in dozens of areas of practice.

Orlando's Top Dentists of 2018

Our annual list featuring 224 of the area's finest dental professionals.

Guide to Private Schools 2018

Our searchable annual database will help you chart an educational course for your family.

2017 Premier Doctors

Our annual list of over 500 doctors.
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

MoreRecent Blog Posts

Prospective Family Open House: November 4, 2018

A Culture of Thinking

Health Hub: Cancer Care For The Body, Mind and Spirit

Treating the whole patient can improve outcomes.

Texas de Brazil Fall Feast Giveaway

Enter to win a $200 gift certificate for four to Texas de Brazil for a Fall Feast to remember!

Kid Kontributor of the Month - September 2018

Read all about why Leah's cat, Missy, is special, and learn all about our monthly feature, the "Kid Kontributor of the Month."

Orlando Burger Battle 2018 Giveaway

Enter to win VIP and General Admission tickets to our epic Orlando Burger Battle and a subscription to Orlando Magazine!
Edit Module