Flying Blind: Laser strikes on planes increase 50%

Flying Blind: Laser strikes on planes increase 50%

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - The Federal Aviation Administration is reporting a 50 percent increase in laser strikes nationwide in the last year.

According to data from the FAA, over the last seven years, there's been a gradual increase in reports from pilots nationwide, averaging around 3,700 incidents per year.

But in 2015, laser attacks nearly doubled to a record 7,700 strikes.

"Could be a few seconds, could be a couple minutes," LCDR Andy Zuckerman of the U.S. Coast Guard said. "If you're a passenger in an aircraft.... do you want your pilot blinded for a couple seconds or a couple minutes?"

Zuckerman has been hit four times by a laser.

"You'll see a green flash," Zuckerman said. "The cockpit kind of gets filled with this eerie green light. It kind of temporarily blinds you…When you're 30 feet over the water at night. Even if you're a pilot with thousands of hours, that's an incredibly difficult to do being distracted for five seconds because a light is flashing at you or you can't see, that's really dangerous."

According to the FBI, lasers costing as little as $1 can have range of two miles.

The beam in a $40 or $50 laser can reach 10 miles, and the beam gets larger the further it travels, potentially causing blindness.

According to Zuckerman, being lazed could force Coast Guard pilots to abandon search and rescue missions.

"If somebody's flashing us with a laser," Zuckerman said, "we're getting out of there."

Through an open records request, the Raycom News Network received dozens of documents from the FAA, some citing actual descriptions from the pilots taking off and landing at major airports around the country.

According to FAA data from 2010-2014, there were 24 strikes at Charleston International; 131 documented laser attacks on planes coming and going from Atlanta's major airport. there were 194 in Charlotte; 139 strikes in Myrtle Beach plus incidents in Savannah (19) and Columbia (45).

One FAA record indicated a plane departing Charlotte-Douglas was forced to return to Charlotte after getting "lasered from the left side..."…resulting in a crew member receiving an "eye injury."

The FAA documents show lasers hitting pilots in the cockpits of passenger jets with every major airline including American, United and Delta.

"You're flying this $9 million helicopter without your vision, without being able to see everything," Zuckerman said. "The most dangerous
are the green ones, most common are the red ones…the greens will do more damage because of way your eye responds to that color."

Captain Susan Finch pilots C-17's for Joint Base Charleston. She's never been lasered but that may be because the Air Force provides pilots with protective glasses to counteract possible laser effects in threat zones.

"I don't think it's any secret that lasers can affect your vision," Finch said. "We have a lot going on so any distraction is obviously not welcome."

According to a Joint Base Charleston spokesperson, "Aircrew Laser Eye Protection concept of operations calls for aircrew to employ ALEP devices whenever lasers are likely to be employed by U.S., Allied, or unfriendly forces.

Based on the threat environment, local commanders have discretionary control over ALEP wear policy for their subordinates."

"Based on operating conditions there are both 'day' and 'night' Aircrew Laser Eye Protection spectacles," the spokesperson said. "The average procurement unit cost for day spectacles is $2,000 and the night version is $2,500.  While the cost appears high for 'eye protection', there are significant state-of-the-art costs associated with the protective material properties, material yield rates and manufacturing processes."

"It affects everyone," Finch said. "If you think about it, you could have family or friends that's up in that plane that's trying to land so you want to make sure the plane has all the means available to land that plane safely and not have any distractions."

Lasering a pilot carries a price. A federal law passed in 2012 made lasing planes punishable by up to five years in prison.

"I truly in my heart believe most people who shine a laser at an aircraft aren't trying to be malicious," Zuckerman. "They just think it's fun."

It's not funny, it's a felony," Paul Daymond, Public Affairs for the FBI, said. "It can be prison time…It's blinding, it's disorienting, it's dangerous"

Pilots can send laser strike coordinates to law enforcement, pinpointing the source.

"We have a pretty good idea of what neighborhood and then what block it comes from," Zuckerman said. "We have pretty advance GPS in helicopter so we can get a pretty good idea."

 Delta, United, American Airlines, Southwest, Alaska Airlines and Jet Blue all utilize Charleston International for flights. Each airline was asked whether their company has a policy regarding protective eye wear. The following airlines responded to the request for comment:
--"Southwest does not have a policy regarding this eye wear. Southwest takes very seriously the health and well-being of its Crewmembers and Customers.  We will continue to participate with industry stakeholders and the FAA regarding the elimination of laser events and mitigating their impact on operating Crews. We will consider utilizing protective measures that have been vetted and deemed safe for flight and Crew use."

--"We currently do not have a policy for eye wear and laser strikes.  Our flight safety team is working together with industry leaders and the FAA to evaluate possible solutions," said Captain Scott Day, Alaska Airlines.

--American Airlines spokesperson confirmed there is no company policy regarding protective glasses; the airlines does have crew protocol in place should a laser event occur.

--Delta Airlines spokesperson said "Delta fully cooperates with federal authorities who investigate these unacceptable and potentially dangerous situations."

In addition, Charleston Rep. Wendell Gilliard is sponsoring a bill this year to increase the state penalties for anyone who willfully shines a light at a plane here in S.C. The bill proposes a fine of $200,000 and a mandatory minimum ten years imprisonment without parole. The bill is currently in the Judicial Committee.
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