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. 

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