The Federal Aviation Administration has a message for you (and you know who you are): Quit with the lasers.
In a report issued recently, the FAA and the FBI have noticed a disturbing uptick in a phenomenon only the federal government could term with such technical speak – “laser events.” For the rest of us, a “laser event” is simply shining a laser in the cockpit or eyes of pilots who are landing or taking off, risking temporary or permanent blindness.
The prank that has been the staple of middle school students for years can become downright dangerous when the ubiquitous lasers are aimed at the cockpit during night landings or take-offs. In Montana in the past decade, there have been nearly 200 reports to the FAA of laser interference, reports the Daily Montanan.
The majority of the events are difficult to trace – from the direction they’re coming from, to the response times needed. For example, pilots often have to be able to tell where the laser light is coming from and relay it to the airport tower, which then has to relay the information to local law enforcement. This happens usually during critical portions of the flight, which require the pilot’s concentration.
Brian Sprenger, airport director for the Bozeman Yellowstone Airport, the state’s most used passenger airport, said they typically deal with several reports a year from pilots who report laser interference.
“People are ignorant of the safety ramifications,” Sprenger said. “They may not realize the cockpit is a dark environment and there can be pretty significant damage to the eyesight, even permanent.”
Kevin Ploehn, aviation and transportation director for the City of Billings, told the Daily Montanan that the Billings Logan International Airport gets several reports a year. If it’s a commercial flight, there are two pilots, but in private flights, there can be just one – which could lead to disastrous consequences.
“I say it’s like one of those old-fashion cameras with the flashes,” Ploehn said. “You know, the kind that kind of blinded you for a few minutes? That’s what it’s like for the pilots. And not being able to see for a few minutes is really dangerous.”
Both airport managers guess the uptick is a matter of high school kids or pranksters, and that lasers have become cheaper, more common and more compact.
The FAA reports that between 2010 and 2020, there were 57,835 “laser events” with nearly 20 percent coming from California. Overall, that’s an increase of 148 percent during the past decade, with November 2020 reporting 892 incidents nationwide, nearly toppling the record for most incidents in a month, which was set in December 2015 with 938.
The FAA reports that Saturday is the most common day for these to happen, and Montana is in the middle of the states with 17.96 incidents per 100,000 residents, nearly identical to the rate of neighboring state, North Dakota. Hawaii leads the nation with an average of nearly 94 incidents per 100,000 people.
Montana reported 27 cases last year, with several coming from both Billings and Bozeman. Great Falls and Missoula – both larger commercial airports by Montana’s standards – didn’t report any.
However, the FAA and the FBI – both of which investigate “laser events” – are warning the public that what may be a staple of class clowns could land those same pranksters in trouble. Interfering with the flights via laser are punishable by as much as $250,000 in fines and five years in prison.
“People want to show their buddies. It’s some goofball in a car,” Ploehn said.