If you’re an aircraft pilot coming in to land, the last thing you want to have to deal with is some jerk on the ground trying to shine a laser beam in your eyes.
The FBI, for one, is becoming increasingly concerned about the criminal use of laser pointers, on Tuesday announcing a new initiative involving $10,000 rewards to anyone offering information that leads directly to the arrest of an individual engaging in the dangerous practice.
“Aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft is a serious matter and a violation of federal law,” Ron Hosko, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, said in a release. “It is important that people understand that this is a criminal act with potentially deadly repercussions.”
Although a laser pointer can be pretty small, its beam is powerful enough to travel more than a mile. When aimed at a plane, the cockpit can suddenly light up like “a camera flash going off in a pitch black car at night,” the FBI said. While this is disorientating enough for a pilot, things can get a whole lot more serious if the beam scores a direct hit on their eyes, putting everyone on board the plane at risk should they lose control of the aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration has so far documented 35 cases where pilots needed medical treatment following a laser strike, though thankfully up to now no planes are believed to have gone down as the result of a laser-pointer incident.
The FBI, which has been tracking laser strikes since 2005, says the number of incidents reported each year is on the increase. In 2013, 3,960 laser strikes on aircraft were reported by pilots, equivalent to almost 11 a day.
“We hope that more public awareness about this issue will lower the instances of laser strikes,” said George Johnson, a federal air marshal who advises the FBI on laser issues. “We also want to encourage people to come forward when they see someone committing this felony – one that could have terrible consequences for pilots and their passengers.”
The FBI’s reward scheme, which is part of a campaign to educate the public about the dangers of laser pointers, will run for 60 days in 12 of the Bureau’s locations where laser strikes on aircraft are most common, namely Albuquerque, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Juan, PR, and Washington, DC.
Anyone convicted of such an offense can expect to get up to five years in prison, the FBI warned.