September 26, 2011

Making a Point About Lasers

Illegal Use of Devices a Serious Crime

Justin Stouder was aiming a laser pointer at a distant tower from his suburban St. Louis yard one April evening in 2010 when a police helicopter appeared in his line of sight more than a mile away.

At the time, the 24-year-old had no idea that his decision to point the laser at the helicopter was a federal felony—or that the beam of light might have serious consequences for the pilot and his crew.

“It’s equivalent to a flash of a camera if you were in a pitch black car at night,” said St. Louis Metropolitan Police Officer Doug Reinholz, the pilot on patrol that night when Stouder’s green hand-held laser “painted” his cockpit. “It’s a temporary blinding to the pilot,” he said during a recent news conference highlighting the danger of lasers directed at airplanes and helicopters.

Interfering with the operation of an aircraft is a crime punishable by a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and laser incidents are on the rise. Since the FBI and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began keeping records of laser events in 2004, “there has been an exponential increase every year,” said Tim Childs from the Federal Air Marshal Service, who serves as a liaison officer with the Bureau on laser issues. 

In 2009, there were 1,489 laser events logged with the FAA—that is, pilots reporting that their cockpits were illuminated by the devices. The following year, that figure had nearly doubled to 2,836, an average of more than seven incidents every day of the year. And the overwhelming number of the incidents involved green lasers—especially dangerous because the human eye is most susceptible to damage from the yellow-green light spectrum.

Hand-held lasers—about the size of fountain pens—are used legitimately by astronomy hobbyists and in industrial applications. Anyone can purchase one, and technology has made them inexpensive and more powerful. Lasers costing as little as $1 can have ranges of two miles—strong enough to target a variety of aircraft.

And what appears as a dot of light on the ground can illuminate an entire cockpit, disorienting a pilot or causing temporarily blindness. That’s because the farther the beam travels the more spread out it becomes. “At 500 feet,” Childs said, “that two-centimeter dot you see on your wall can be six feet wide.” To date, no aircraft have been lost as a result of laser incidents, he added, but there have been eye injuries, and perpetrators have gone to jail.

Those responsible for “lasering” aircraft fit two general profiles, Childs explained. “Consistently, it’s either minors with no criminal history or older men with criminal records.” The teens are usually curious or fall victim to peer pressure, Childs said. The older men simply have a reckless disregard for the safety of others. There are also intentional acts of laser pointing by human traffickers or drug runners seeking to thwart airborne surveillance, Childs added.

As for Justin Stouder, the helicopter pilot he lasered helped guide police to his house, where he was arrested minutes after the incident.

“I had no idea it illuminated the whole cockpit and blinded everybody inside,” Stouder said during the news conference. He offered a public apology and volunteered to tell his story in the hopes of educating the public about the dangers of laser pointing. “It was really a selfish mistake,” he said of his actions.

- Press release
- More information about laser pointers and safety