Aircraft Laser Strikes Soar To All-Time High

Despite the threat of hefty punishment, laser pointers remain cheap and offenders are rarely caught.

People increasingly are pointing lasers at aircraft, despite hefty fines and prison sentences for those who are caught.

On one night this month, aviation authorities logged 20 laser strikes in at least 16 cities, adding to the year's already record number of strikes. The Federal Aviation Administration has reported 5,352 laser strikes in 2015 through Oct. 16, compared with 3,894 in all of 2014.

The surge may have to do with the cheap price of laser pointers and their easy availability, said Tammy Jones, an FAA spokeswoman. The tiny lasers -- the kind you see in work meetings -- appear harmless, but when their light hits the windshield of an airliner cockpit, they can completely blind pilots.

"We suffered flash blindness, after-imaging and then retinal burning that continued on for a while," pilot Robert Hamilton told CBS News, describing five laser strikes he's experienced as his crews were either taking off or landing. "We have to complete checklists, configure the aircraft, change our speed, change our pitch attitude, prepare the aircraft for landing or taking off, and at that moment to have our vision taken away from us, which is the most critical phase of flight is a very serious safety risk."

Federal measures against air strikes include fines of up to $250,000 and up to 20 years in prison. In 2014, the FBI piloted a reward program offering $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of "any individual who aims a laser at an aircraft."



Still, those perpetrating the crimes are rarely punished. Since 2005, 162 people have been arrested for laser strikes and only 86 have been convicted -- distressingly low figures compared with the thousands of laser strikes over the decade.

Most aircraft aren't equipped to locate the source of lasers. And sometimes, charges against those who are caught are dropped because perpetrators don't fully understand the potential danger of their actions.

Offenders are typically males, from teenagers to men in their 50s, according to the FAA.

A news helicopter for the NBC affiliate in New York City was hit by a laser last week. A bright green light filled the cockpit as the helicopter flew over Prospect Heights. An NYPD helicopter was hit by a laser strike nearby around the same time. 

The NBC helicopter's camera crew aimed the lens at the laser source, filming the perpetrators in the act. Police caught two people and charged one with reckless endangerment.

On the same night, three aircraft near Dallas Love Field also were hit by laser strikes.