Weapons of mass distraction

Laser pointer attacks on airplane pilots have jumped 1100% since 2005

October 21, 2013
October 21, 2013

As if airplane pilots didn’t already have enough to worry about, they’re now facing record levels of attacks from laser pointers while landing their planes.

The FBI’s terrorism unit is investigating two incidents last week at New York City’s LaGuardia airport in which airplane pilots were temporarily blinded by green lights shone from several miles away. They are thought to have come from small, handheld laser pointers, such as the battery-powered ones often used in classrooms. Laser lights that hit at a particular angle can illuminate the whole cockpit with a bright green or red light, and blind the pilots as they’re trying to land.

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A still from an instructional video simulating the effects of a laser pointer in a cockpit.FAA

Things are so bad that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) even has a webpage about the problem, explaining how pilots can mitigate its effects, and laying out its potential costs. The lasers have never caused a crash, but they can disorient pilots at crucial moments. “It can blur the vision basically, it can fog the vision of the cockpit when you’re looking out the glass so it’s much harder to look out the glass and identify locations where you’re going,” FBI special agent Rich Frankel told CBS.

The two incidents last week are part of a disconcerting trend. Laser pointer incidents are up 17% in NYC from last year, and a whopping 1100% across the US since 2005.

Incidences-of-laser-pointer-attacks-on-airplanes-Incidences_chartbuilder

Despite a slight slowdown in the number of incidents reported in the US last year, the number appears to be climbing again. There were more incidents this past January—346—as there were in all of 2005—283.

In an attempt to crack down on the seemingly innocuous but potentially catastrophic trend,  the FAA is urging citizens to report any and all “laser incidents” as soon as possible, and now imposes a fine of up to $11,000 for those caught and found guilty. The US isn’t the only country with the problem: Others, including Russia, have amended their criminal code to specifically punish the use of laser pointers against airplanes.

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