USA TODAY - Laser attacks against airplanes are surging at a record pace this year, including 89 in the New York area alone, as experts fear this escalation could endanger more pilots and one day produce "catastrophic results."
The three New York-area airports are each seeing more laser strikes this year than last. LaGuardia had 54, JFK had 17 and Newark had 18 through Oct. 17, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The site LaserPointerSafety.com noted that incidents at those airports are running 27% higher than during the same period in 2012.
Nationally, the pace of 3,188 reports through Oct. 17 is on pace for 17% increase over last year. At that rate, the incidents could beat the peak of 3,591 set in 2011.
FAA officials, pilots and law-enforcement officials have noticed a steep climb in these incidents during the last decade and encouraged better reporting to deter the incidents. Yet despite stiffer penalties adopted in recent years - including threats of prison time - locating offenders on the ground remains difficult.
The hand-held lasers at issue are more powerful than office pointers and are widely available for as little as $50. These more potent devices can be pointed at planes miles away. The light is often diffused by the plane's windshield and can temporarily blind pilots.
"It really is a big problem and a growing problem," said Capt. Sean Cassidy, first vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association. "They're introducing another distraction into an environment where we need to be incredibly focused."
In New York City, the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force noted that several pilots suffered injuries this year, including a burnt retina, raising the risk of a possible crash. Pilots work in pairs on airliners, and so far when one has been temporarily blinded, the other has been able to keep the plane on course. The task force is seeking witnesses to a couple of incidents Oct. 15 at LaGuardia airport:
•About 7:35 p.m., a green laser was pointed at a landing airliner about six miles from the runway - from west of the Botanical Garden in the Bronx - while the plane was still 2,000 feet in the air.
•About 10:37 p.m., a laser originating near Broadway and Steinway Street in Queens pointed at a private plane more than three miles away, flying east over the Triborough Bridge.
"Our paramount concern is the safety of aircraft passengers and crew," said George Venizelos, assistant director in charge of FBI's New York office.
The Food and Drug Administration limits the power of office pointers to 5 milliwatts. But more powerful lasers are widely available on the Internet. A 50 milliwatt laser advertised to shine one-third of a mile costs about $20, and a 300 milliwatt laser marketed for astronomical purposes and reaches nearly 2 miles costs about $50.
"It diffuses into the cockpit like a flashbulb going off if your face or like lightning near the aircraft," said Kevin Hiatt, a former commercial pilot and now CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, which studies aviation and makes recommendations. "It could have pretty catastrophic results. We're trying to keep it from happening before it does."
The FAA announced in June 2011 that it would impose civil penalties up to $11,000 for pointing a laser at a plane, under a section of code that prohibits interfering with the crew of an airliner. The agency has opened 129 cases. In addition, the FBI can bring criminal charges for pointing a laser at a plane, with penalties up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, under a law approved in February 2012.
Pilots and safety experts are eager to discourage the incidents that they blame mainly on mischief.
"A lot of this is kids and pranksters," Hiatt said.
In Oregon, a 39-year-old man, Stephen Francis Bukucs, has pleaded innocent to two counts of pointing a laser at United and JetBlue flights landing at Portland's airport on Oct. 13. His jury trial is scheduled Dec. 10.
The prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Peifer, says Bukucs pointed a green laser at planes at least 25 times "for excitement, for thrills," according to the Associated Press.
Tom Anthony, a former manager of FAA investigations who is now head of the aviation safety and security program at the University of Southern California, said the proliferation of stronger lasers available on the Internet made it harder to fight the threat. He said pilots, the FAA and law enforcement must coordinate who to call to chase reports as they happen - often at night.
"It's a complex, real-time investigation," Anthony said. "It's not one you can do on Monday morning."
Cassidy said a member of the pilot's association is working to coordinate reporting better with law enforcement.
"We do know that there have been a number of instances where that has led directly to the apprehension of folks so they have been caught in the act by ground units," Cassidy said.
Hiatt from the Flight Safety Foundation suggested the FDA should tighten its rules, to restrict the powerful tools from falling into the wrong hands.
"I believe right at the moment it is more of a nuisance activity - someone who doesn't understand the magnitude of what they're doing," Hiatt said. "It's causing more concern because of more frequency."
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)