Lasers: The Danger to Aircraft Is Real

LasersIn a public awareness campaign, the FBI continues to stress that there is a real danger to aircraft safety from people who target them with lasers. According to their statistics, there has been a sharp rise in the number of incidents reported by pilots prompting the FBI to initiate a reward program offering $10,000 to anyone for information leading to an arrest. Since the 90-day trial period began in February, the number of reported incidents dropped by a significant 19 percent.

The act of aiming a laser pointer at aircraft became a federal offense in 2012 and carries with it a maximum five-year prison sentence. Although it is a crime, Diego Rodriguez, special agent in charge of the Dallas FBI office opined that most people involved do not mean to cause harm. He said reducing the number of occurrences is largely a matter of educating the public of the dangers. In 2013, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, TX had a combined total of 394 incidents of aircraft having lasers pointed at them from the ground. During the summer of 2013, a two-and-a-half year sentence was handed down to Dallas resident, Kenneth Santodomingo, after he was convicted of pointing a laser at a Dallas police helicopter.

The law was enacted in February 2012 under US Code Title 18 Section 39A and makes the act of aiming the beam of a laser pointer at aircraft punishable by a fine up to $250,000 and up to five years in prison. The legislation was proposed after pilots complained of being distracted and even temporarily blinded by ground based laser pointers which posed a real danger to the safe operation of the aircraft. In just one year, the number of laser incidents occurring between 2009 and 2010 went from 1,527 to 2,826. The number of reported incidents in 2011 rose sharply again to 3,591. The most recent estimate has the number on average of 11 times per day at a rate of 4,409 reported incidents per year. These incidents have endangered aviation from commercial airline aircraft on final approach to helicopter Emergency Medical Service patient transport as well as common general aviation operations.

The origin of the laser lies in the development of the maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) in 1947. The practical application of the maser was intended to be the amplification of electromagnetic signals into smaller wavelengths. While this application did not produce significant results of its own merits, in the late 1950s the outcome of maser research aided in the development of coherent radiation in the visible spectrum and produced the concentrated beam of monochromatic light. Consequently, the separate term laser (light amplified by stimulated emission of radiation) was assigned.

Over the years, laser technology progressed rapidly enough so that retail prices of laser pointers decreased from approximately $800 all the way down to $20 or less. With prices of these lasers so low, there is no monetary obstacle to limit the number of people who purchase them or the number of mischievous hands they fall into. Lasers pose a real threat to aviation and can endanger human life if a pilot is incapacitated to the point where he is unable to control the aircraft.

By Mark Politi

Dallas News
NBC News
Department of Justice
American Institute of Physics