Responding to a record number of dangerous idiots in the nation aiming lasers at aircraft last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced last week it is offering a reward of up to $10,000 for anyone who helps catch them.
That could be a bonanza for Californians and, more specifically, residents of the Los Angeles–Burbank–Van Nuys region, where the most incidents were reported last year. Nationally, 3,960 laser strikes were reported to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2013, compared to 3,482 the year before. Thousands of attacks go unrelated each year.
The reward program will be conducted at 12 FBI field offices and last 60 days, in an effort to deter people from shining a laser at an aircraft for the sheer joy of blinding the pilot and causing a deadly crash.
California accounted for 734 incidents last year, far outstripping Texas at 416. Florida was third (326), followed by Arizona (202), Oregon (173), New York (154), Pennsylvania (148), Puerto Rico (115), Illinois (144) and Nevada (102).
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) was only fourth in the nation among those airports closest to a reported incident, but LaserPointerSafety.com, an independent resource for all things related to portable lasers, grouped the FAA data by city/region to render a first-place finish for the L.A. area. Portland International Airport (PDX) was the No. 1 attraction for laser loonies and the region was No. 2.
In addition to posing major distractions to pilots during takeoffs and landings, a laser beam can do serious physical damage. Glendale Police Lt. Steve Robertson was temporarily blinded 20 years ago when the cockpit of the helicopter he was piloting turned green.
He told the Torrance Daily Breeze: “If I was the only pilot on board that helicopter that night, there was no way I could have landed the aircraft. Initially, it’s the shock. Then, it’s the unknown factor. It’s not knowing how bad your eyes are burned.” His were burned bad enough to require medical treatment.
However, the FAA didn’t report any pilots suffering laser eye injuries in 2013. LaserPointerSafety.com said the FAA used to include tallies of temporary adverse effects— “flashblindness, afterimage, blurry vision, eye irritation and/or headache”—but stopped last year. On average historically, they used to involve about 1% of laser incidents.
Federal and state laws forbid aiming a laser beam at aircraft. The federal law was passed in 2012 after a steep escalation of incidents since 2004. There were only 46 reported that year. By 2008, the number had climbed to 949. It jumped to 1,527 in 2009, 2,835 in 2010 and 3,591 in 2011, the year before the federal law kicked in.
Laser pointers are a popular tool and toy for a generation weaned on “Star Wars” and sold on their coolness. They are used in educational and business presentations, in industrial settings, for leisure and entertainment, and as gun sights on weapons. There are different color laser beams, but green is by far the most widely used.
A Google search for “laser pointer” quickly turns up Wickedlasers.com, where you can get “the perfect gift for the supervillain” (Wall Street Journal) or “a seriously badass device” (Wired) to entertain your friends and terrorize your enemies (real or imagined).
But Obi-Wan Kenobe wannabes beware. Last March, 19-year-old Adam Gardenhire of North Hollywood was sentenced to 30 months in prison on federal charges for aiming a green laser beam at an airplane and a Pasadena police helicopter. FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller told the LA Weekly he was only the second person ever charged under the new law. Glenn Stephen Hansen of Orlando, Florida, blazed the trail, she said.