Joe Finnell, president of the Southern California Pilots Association, holds a model of his Cessna 182. Finnell is concerned about the increased reports that laser pointers are being aimed into the cockpits of planes.
Orange County Sheriff Deputy Erik Baum with the aviation unit uses a high definition, infrared camera mounted on the outside of the copter, bottom left, with a hand control to track down violators. The camera’s detail and precision are remarkable even from more than a mile away. Lasers can cause migraines and serious injury to the eyes when pointed in someone’s direction.
Pilot Mike Jesch was in the final and most critical minutes of an American Airlines flight from Dallas to Tampa Bay, preparing to land, when the warning came over a cockpit computer: The control tower was reporting strikes from laser pointers.
A short time later, the cockpit lit up in a green glow. Had the laser beam even briefly found Jesch or his co-pilot, it could have temporarily blinded or disoriented them, putting everyone onboard at added risk. But the pilots had lowered their seats to protect their faces from a direct hit and the airliner touched down safely.
To many, handheld laser pointers are one more cool, techie gadget offering a bit of serendipitous entertainment. Jesch, speaking on his own behalf and not for American Airlines, said he suspects many laser users just want “a challenge, to hit a fast-moving target.”
“But they don’t understand the damage that can be done,” he said.
And the dangers for airliners, private planes and law-enforcement aircraft across Southern California have grown in recent years as costs of small laser devices have fallen and their availability and power has increased.
Federal Aviation Administration records show laser-pointer strikes more than doubled last year in Los Angeles and Santa Ana — home to the area’s two busiest international airports — with more than 240 and 65 reported incidents, respectively.
Around Long Beach Airport, incidents jumped from 20 in 2014 to 34 in 2015. FAA data shows the area had between 12 and 14 each year from 2010 through 2013.
Ontario, with Ontario International, logged close to 90 strikes in 2015, a nearly three-fold increase from the previous year.
The increases can be traced to a variety of factors, including more diligent reporting by pilots, and the pointers becoming cheaper and readily availability online, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor wrote in an email to this news organization.
The power of such lasers also has increased significantly over the past five years, “meaning they are capable of hitting planes at higher altitudes,” Gregor said.
Authorities from several agencies are attempting to reverse the upward trend with more prosecutions of laser-pointer suspects, lengthier prison sentences, high-tech equipment that tracks down suspects and limits on low-cost imports.
One newer concern is that the wattage of some of the slender, lightweight devices is now strong enough to reach aircraft several thousand feet in the air.
Los Angeles Airport Police Chief Patrick Gannon said any reported incidents involving LAX-related aircraft “would have occurred off-airport ... many of them miles away from the airport.”
As a result, the chief said in a statement, airport police coordinate with a range of agencies, including the FBI and local law enforcement, to investigate all reports of lasers pointed at aircraft, which is both a federal and state crime.
Federal penalties have been ratcheted up since the U.S. Justice Department’s first prosecution for a laser strike on an aircraft occurred in Orange County in 2008. Dana Christian Welch of Orange was convicted of beaming lasers at two airliners on final approach to John Wayne Airport.
Attorney Craig Wilke, who represented Welch, said there was no dispute that his client directed lasers at the planes. But Wilke argued at trial that Welch’s motive was a “prank done without awareness of consequence.” That helped secure a shorter 21/2-year prison sentence, which was less than prosecutors had offered, the attorney said. Welch, who was released from prison in 2013, couldn’t be reached for comment and John Wayne Airport referred inquiries to the FAA.
At that time of the Welch case, the prosecutors had to prove a defendant willfully interfered with the operation of an aircraft “with intent to endanger the safety of any person or with a reckless disregard for the safety of human life.”
That made such cases “tougher to prove,” said FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller, of the Los Angeles field office.
Since 2012, federal defendants in laser-strike cases have faced up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. In addition, prosecutors have a lower burden of proof and need only to show that a defendant “knowingly” shined a laser pointer at an aircraft or flight path.
More convictions and, in some cases, far longer sentences have followed.
In Orange County, Sgt. William Fitzgerald oversees the day-to-day operations of the Sheriff Department’s aviation support unit, which operates from John Wayne Airport. The unit’s wide-ranging duties include tracking down laser-pointer suspects.
High-definition, long-range video cameras mounted in the front of two patrol helicopters are crucial to the effort.
At an office in the department’s hangar, Sheriff’s Deputy Erik Baum shared a video of an August 2012 laser-pointer attack on one of the agency’s helicopters. The video was captured by the helicopter’s camera.
Shot from 3,100 feet, the footage begins with a flashing green laser streaking into the sky from a residential neighborhood in Lake Forest. Maintaining a safe and tactical distance, an air crew officer directs the camera, manufactured by a military contractor, to the source of the beam and quickly zeroes in on a man in his backyard who appears to have a dark object in his hand.
Not long after, the camera records another glowing neon-green flash originating from the suspect’s hand and the suspect pacing around the backyard. Soon after, the air crew directs ground officers to the suspect’s home, ending in his arrest.
“We’d been hit 10 to 15 seconds already by the time the camera is on them,” Baum said.
The detailed footage from the $600,000 cameras, funded with U.S. Department Homeland Security grants, “really makes it easier for the district attorney or the jury,” Fitzgerald said. “It shows intent.”
So why hasn’t the government restricted or simply banned laser sales and purchases?
Lasers have legitimate uses as pointers in classrooms and for commercial light shows, among other things. In addition, federal regulators are limited in what they can do.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has limited the wattage of laser pointers sold in the U.S. to no more than 5 milliwatts and required warnings about radiation and other hazards. However, lasers that are readily available online from offshore sellers can have up to 3,000 milliwatts of power, said Patrick Murphy, executive director of the International Laser Display Association.
The FDA says it tries to stem the influx of “overpowered” laser pointers into the country by rejecting and returning — or destroying — shipments of such devices it intercepts.
Most of those shipments come from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, according to the FAA records. Importers caught violating regulations can face civil penalties of up to $375,000. FDA spokeswoman Angela Stark said the agency has met with Chinese government officials multiple times recently “to better communicate regulations and risks of injury to laser products to China laser product manufacturers.”
But Stark also acknowledged the FDA “does not have the authority to ban laser pointers or restrict their sale to certain individuals.”
Murphy, of the laser association, says laser manufacturers tend to be smaller companies. One of the better-known companies, Hong Kong-based Wicked Laser, which previously marketed high-powered portable laser pointers, said in an email to this news organization that it hasn’t sold such devices in the U.S. since 2014 and has shifted its business to laser home show projectors.
Joe Finnell, president of the Southern California Pilots Association and a hobbyist pilot, has a 100 milliwatt laser pointer he purchased online years ago. He stresses he never uses it outdoors, but agreed to show it to a reporter for educational purposes.
While flying at night, “if you look at a real bright light, it tends to bloom in your eye,” Finnell said.
A laser pointer can create “a powerful spotlight,” he added. “You lose perspective. ... That’s what makes it so dangerous in the cockpit.”
Dr. Nick Batra, a California ophthalmologist and president-elect of the California Academy of Eye Physicians and Surgeons, noted a federal study found a majority of laser pointers don’t meet safety recommendations.
He’s treated patients struck by laser pointers. One experienced irreversible retinal damage, affecting his peripheral vision, Batra said. Another patient went blind in one eye.
“A split second is enough” to cause serious eye damage, he said.
Laser pointers “should not be pointed at anyone,” Batra added,“let alone pilots.”