They're dangerous to pilots and it's a huge problem in PHX
(KFYI News) – The FBI and Phoenix police are among the agencies taking part in a new publicity campaign aimed at discouraging people from pointing lasers at aircraft at night. The publicity campaign includes five-figure rewards for witnesses of such a crime.
Last year, there were nearly 4,000 reports of lasers aimed at aircraft nationwide. That's more than ten reports a day. In Phoenix, that number was 123, or more than two per week. That placed Phoenix third among U.S. metro areas in the number of such reports for the year.
Including the Phoenix and Tucson areas together, the FBI says Arizona accounted for more laser pointing reports than any other state.
Police and pilots say a laser pointed at an aircraft is downright dangerous. Marcin Kolodziejczyk, an airline pilot based in Phoenix, described one incident. He said he was bringing an airliner in on final approach for a landing at Sky Harbor when "suddenly the entire flight deck was filled up with a bright green light... This distraction came during one of the most critical phases of flight."
He said part of the problem is that not only are lasers intensely bright if you're right in their beam, but the multiple layers of glass in the cockpit windows magnify the light by bouncing it in different directions. Then, a pilot's eyes, which are adjusted to the darkness outside, suddenly adjust to the bright light, making them temporarily blind compared to the low-light conditions they were used to.
That, he said, is a disaster waiting to happen if a pilot suddenly can't see sufficiently to bring the plane in for a safe landing.
Chris Potter, a Tucson police officer who flies one of his agency's helicopters, estimates that during his 20 years of flying, he's been hit by at least 100 laser strikes, one of which caused permanent injury to his right eye.
"It felt like something flew in my eye, or like I got punched in the eye," he told reporters at a news conference announcing the publicity campaign. "It felt like there was a piece of glass or some kind of debris in there."
He couldn't see out of his right eye, and fortunately was able to land the helicopter using just his left eye. He was the only licensed pilot on board at the time. Since then, he's regained enough vision in his right eye to continue flying, but his vision isn't as good as it used to be.
Another part of the problem, he says, is that lasers have gotten stronger and less expensive. "The lasers that we're seeing nowadays are significantly more powerful than what we saw 20 years ago."
Phoenix police chief Daniel Garcia says officers do arrest people for laser pointing, when they can track them down. In September alone, he said, Phoenix police arrested five people for pointing a laser at an aircraft.
In some cases, the pilots are able to give detailed enough information as to where the laser came from for officers to find the offender. In other cases, they're able to find witnesses. "We've had calls to 911 specifically on this issue," he said.
Officials say they don't know why people aim a laser at a plane or helicopter, but that most of them probably don't know it's dangerous.
Anyone caught pointing a laser at an aircraft can be fined up to $11,000 – it's that serious. As part of the new campaign, the FBI will begin offering rewards of up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of anyone suspected of pointing a laser at a plane or helicopter.
PHOTO: Federal and local law enforcement officials, as well as pilots, address reporters at a news conference announcing the new publicity campaign.