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Aiming a laser at an aircraft creates a serious safety risk that violates federal law. High-powered lasers can temporarily blind pilots flying aircraft that often carry hundreds of passengers.
When aimed at an aircraft, the powerful beam of light from a handheld laser can travel more than a mile and illuminate a cockpit, disorienting and temporarily blinding pilots. Those who have experienced such attacks (called lasing) have described them as the equivalent of a camera flash going off in a pitch black car at night.
As of December 2013, the FAA had documented at least 35 incidents where pilots required medical attention after a laser strike.
Interfering with the operation of an aircraft has long been a federal crime, but in 2012, a new law made it a felony to knowingly point the beam of a laser at an aircraft. The new law lowered the threshold for prosecution, and the trend is on the rise for jail time in these cases.
In fact, according to the FBI... "Aiming a laser at an aircraft is punishable by up to 5 years in prison and/or up to a $250,000 fine."
In March, for example, a 26-year-old California man was sentenced to 14 years in prison for aiming a laser pointer at a police helicopter and a hospital emergency transport helicopter. The man and his girlfriend were using a device that was 13 times more powerful than the permissible power emission level for handheld lasers. The girlfriend was also convicted and recently sentenced to a two-year prison term.
The FAA’s guidance for agency investigators and attorneys stresses that laser violations should not be addressed through warning notices or counseling. The agency seeks moderately high civil penalties for inadvertent violations, but maximum penalties for deliberate violations. Violators who are pilots or mechanics face revocation of their FAA certificate, as well as civil penalties.
Some cities and states have laws making it illegal to shine lasers at aircraft and, in many cases, people can face federal charges. The FAA works with law enforcement agencies to assist with criminal prosecutions. Federal, state and local prosecutors have sentenced laser violators to jail time, community service, probation and additional financial penalties for court costs and restitution
Since the FBI and the FAA began tracking laser strikes in 2005, there has been more than a 1,100 percent increase in the number of incidents with these devices, which can be purchased in stores or online for as little as a few dollars. Last year, 3,960 laser strikes against aircraft were reported. It is estimated that thousands of attacks go unreported every year.
If you have information about a lasing incident or see someone pointing a laser at an aircraft, call your local FBI office or dial 911.