WASHINGTON – “Right now, we’re getting hit pretty good with a green laser,” radioed the special agent manning the controls of an FBI helicopter.
He was one of hundreds of pilots nationwide last year who reported that individuals on the ground were directing laser pointers at low-flying planes and helicopters.
The Federal Aviation Administration says laser-related incidents that affected aircraft have jumped by 300 percent between 2008 and 2011.
“These cheap things you can get at Staples for a couple of bucks can really do damage to pilots’ eyes and even temporarily flash-blind them,” says Maryland Delegate Sam Arora, D-Montgomery County.
Right before one of the busiest travel days of the year, Arora and Sen. J.B. Jennings, a Republican state senator representing Harford and Baltimore counties, are focusing on the threat to aircraft from laser pointers.
The two men will ask the Maryland General Assembly to raise the maximum penalty to three years in prison and a $2,500 fine for those convicted of shining laser pointers at aircraft. Current law allows for a $500 fine.
Arora says there were 63 such incidents in Maryland last year, including the temporary blinding of a Southwest Airlines pilot while he was landing his 737 jet with more than 130 people aboard at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in February.
“What we need to do is send the message out that this is not acceptable behavior,” says Arora. “It is really dangerous and it can result in real deaths.”
Jennings, a 19-year veteran pilot, says pilots temporarily blinded by powerful laser pointers “create a danger for everyone on board and on the ground.”
Arora says newer green-beam lasers are much more powerful than their red-beam counterparts, which are more common in classrooms and lecture halls.
Even when pointed from miles away, the light from green lasers striking the plexiglass of a helicopter or windshield of an airplane can illuminate the flight deck, blurring vision and washing out the pilots’ view of instruments and controls.
At least a dozen states have passed laws cracking down on laser pointers.