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Pilots are battling record numbers of laser attacks, the FAA says

One foggy night in December 2018, David Hill was trying to land a helicopter when a beam of light suddenly overwhelmed his night vision goggles.

Mr. Hill, an emergency services pilot, had been called to air a teenager who had been seriously injured in a off-road vehicle accident from a village 55 miles north of Madison, Wis.

But now Mr. Hill temporarily blinded.

He flew about 500 feet above the ground and tried to figure it out. It was “like looking into the sun, and all I can see are bright spots,” he recalled.

Someone had aimed a laser at his helicopter. From 2010 to 2021, close to 70,000 pilots reported similar episodes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Last year, it registered more than 9,700 cases, a record high and an increase of 41 percent from 2020.

When a laser pointer reaches a cockpit, the light can disorient or “completely incapacitate” a pilot who on a commercial plane could be responsible for hundreds of passengers, the FAA said. Some commercial flight paths have been disrupted, causing pilots to change course or even turn around.

“What you see as a toy has the capacity for a moment to blind the crew member,” said Billy Nolen, the acting administrator of the FAA.

Although no plane has ever been reported to have crashed as a result of a laser attack, Mr. Nolen in a telephone interview that there was always a risk of a “tragic outcome”. He added: “This is not an arcade game.”

The FAA said one factor in the rise in laser attacks was that lasers were becoming increasingly powerful, inexpensive and easy to buy. Pilots may also be better at reporting incidents, the agency said. Other observers point to a society that is frayed by the pandemic due to the bad behavior.

“If you invade the safety of my aircraft, then you are an aggressor,” said Captain Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, the union representing the pilots of American Airlines. “It’s attack.”

It is a federal crime to deliberately aim a laser pointer at an aircraft. Criminals can be sentenced to up to five years in prison; The FAA can also impose civil sanctions.

In April, a Philadelphia man was sentenced to one year in prison and fined $ 1,000 for shining a laser on a police helicopter. In September, a man from Alabama was sentenced to eight months in prison for aiming a laser at a helicopter flown by the local sheriff’s office. Also that month, a Milwaukee man was sentenced to one year probation for pointing a laser at police planes during protests against police brutality in 2020.

In many cases, however, cases are difficult to prosecute because flight pilots can not easily see who is pointing at the laser. By early March, there had been more than 100 incidents involving lasers aimed at aircraft around Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The FBI has offered a $ 10,000 reward for finding those responsible.

In some cases, these radiant lasers on planes have unknowingly led law enforcement officials directly to their location.

In February 2020, while on patrol near Vacaville, California, about 85 miles northeast of San Francisco, Jan Sears, a California Highway Patrol pilot, said he was hit by a laser. His plane had an infrared camera that helped identify the light source.

“It’s painful,” he said of the laser, describing symptoms that can include sore and watery eyes, headaches and blurred vision. Officer Sears said he saw bright afterimages for several days after the strike when he closed his eyes.

“Teenagers do stupid things,” he said. “But when you start getting adults to do it, you start to wonder what’s your motivation?”

People who point lasers at planes can be roughly divided into two groups: those who are unaware of the dangers they pose and those who are antisocial, said Patrick Murphy, a laser safety expert who runs the website LaserPointerSafety.com.

Murphy, who also serves on a committee that helps advise the FAA and pilots on the issue, has been on more than 100,000 such strikes globally since 2004. Overwhelming, he added, are those charged with pointing lasers, men.

“It’s a guy thing,” said Mr. Murphy and added that when it comes to lasers, the bigger and more powerful, the better. “It’s like having a ‘Star Wars’ lightsaber,” he added. “‘It’s pretty amazing: I have this ray of energy coming out of my hand.”

The Food and Drug Administration restricts sales of lasers that are over five milliwatts for use as pointers, but experts say more powerful lasers can be easily purchased and that the devices are often incorrectly labeled.

At TikTok, some videos promote powerful lasers with links to buy them. Such devices can be used up close for pop balloons and light cigarettes.

Although other countries have restricted sales of the devices, Mr. Murphy and others that such efforts would hardly succeed in the United States.

He and other experts said pilots so far should be trained on lasers and be prepared to respond to them. Many pilots have also started wearing goggles.

But Mr. Hill, the emergency pilot, was unlucky.

That night in 2018, he was forced to give up the rescue. Hours later, his eyes were still burning and hurting, he said. In April 2019, he was on sick leave due to problems with his vision and balance. Mr. Hill, now 58, retired in April.

Mr. Hill doctors told him they could not find evidence that his problems were related to the laser attack, and experts say permanent damage from laser attacks is highly unlikely. But Mr. Hill said he thought there was some connection.

“I know I experienced this laser attack,” he said. “A little over three months later, I could not fly.”

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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