INDIANAPOLIS — WRTV Investigates has uncovered a dangerous and concerning trend when it comes to the skies you fly, whether it’s for vacation or work.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has received 7,186 laser strike reports so far this year, exceeding the 2020 total of 6,852. This marks the highest number of reports since 2016.
You can buy laser pointers online, or at an office supply or big box store.
Many people use them for presentations, and even for cat toys, but the FAA says people are pointing them at airplanes for fun.
It happened to Matt Hagans, a pilot and founder of Eagle Creek Aviation in Indianapolis.
“I was flying into Fort Lauderdale, and I picked up a green light right in my vision,” said Hagans. “It was quite bright. I told the control tower what I saw, reported it. I wasn't debilitated in any fashion but it was annoying obviously."
Hagans said visibility and depth perception are already reduced at night, and a laser can be debilitating.
“The biggest issue is disorientation I think because you've got the airplane, you're busy you have a lot of things to do,” said Hagans. “It's going to take your concentration away."
WRTV Investigates started tracking this problem back in 2014 back when 4,000 laser strikes a year nationwide was the norm, and the FAA is now reporting nearly double that number.
WRTV Investigates obtained federal records and counted 327 laser strike reports in Indiana so far this year, mostly involving green and blue lasers.
Targets in Indiana include smaller, private aircraft as well as larger airplanes from FedEx, UPS, as well as commercial aircraft like Southwest, United and American Airlines.
"We've seen a dramatic increase in strikes,” said Rebecca MacPherson, Regional Administrator with the FAA’s Great Lakes Region. “For the latest data for 2020, we've seen a 10% increase over 2019. Which is quite significant."
It’s not cleared what’s causing the increase, but it could be COVID-19 related.
“Everything gets blamed on COVID, so I guess I'll blame this on COVID as well,” said MacPherson. “They're bored and I don't think people realize just how dangerous it is. It has the ability to incapacitate a pilot. If you're incapacitating a pilot, there's a risk to everyone on the airplane as well as everyone on the ground so it's a very real problem."
Dr. Chris Browning is an optometrist with Vision Quest Eyecare in Central Indiana.
He explained lasers can cause damage and vision problems to a pilot, or anyone playing with lasers including your kids.
"If someone were to look directly at it, the laser is going to hit the really sensitive delicate part of the retina called the macula which is where our 20/20 vision comes from and that can certainly cause permanent damage depending on the strength of the laser and how long someone were to look at that,” said Browning. “The main thing is to make sure you don’t have a green or blue laser. The red lasers based on the energy and wavelength of light are much less likely to cause any real problems.”
You should also stick with Class 1 or Class 2 lasers, rather than Class 3 or 4 which can cause more damage.
Catching the laser culprits is not easy.
The FBI and US Attorney’s Office Southern District of Indiana told us they’re not aware of any federal prosecutions in Indiana related to laser pointing.
Nationally, the FAA says it has issued $120,000 in fines and civil penalties for laser strikes.
The FAA has launched an educational campaign in the hopes of getting better information from the public.
If you're a member of the public who witnessed an individual aiming a laser at an aircraft, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and include the following information:
- Your name and contact information
- Date and time you witnessed the laser incident
- Location and description of the incident
“That allows us to conduct an investigation,” said MacPherson. “Not only does the FAA investigate, but local law enforcement and the FBI will investigate. So, we do take it very seriously. We ask people to please report if they're aware of an incident."
Hagans hopes people report it.
"It's gotta be somebody on the ground that sees it,” said Hagans. “From the air we can't tell where it's coming from."
If you or your kids think it’s fun to play with lasers, take note.
“Why would you throw rocks on a car on the interstate? Why would you point a laser at an airplane?” asked Hagans. “These are all things that are just silly.”