SPRINGFIELD — The Federal Bureau of Investigation has launched an educational campaign to make the public aware of the danger — and criminality — of pointing a laser at an airplane.
The agency is so concerned that it is offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information that leads to the arrest of any individual who aims a laser at an aircraft. The reward is available for 90 days in all 56 FBI field offices.
"Intentionally aiming a laser at an aircraft poses a serious threat to those in the air and on the ground — and it's a serious crime with serious consequences", said Capt. Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association International."The Laser Threat Awareness Campaign has resulted in an overall reduction of incidents, and we look forward to continuing to work with the FBI on these efforts."
Since the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration began tracking laser strikes in 2005, data shows a more than 1,100 percent increase in the deliberate targeting of aircraft by people with handheld lasers.
When aimed at an aircraft, the powerful beam of light from a handheld laser can travel more than a mile and illuminate a cockpit, disorienting and temporarily blinding pilots. Those who have experienced such attacks have described them as the equivalent of a camera flash going off in a pitch black car at night. As of December 2013, the FAA had documented at least 35 incidents where pilots required medical attention after a laser strike.
Interfering with the operation of an aircraft has long been a federal crime, but in 2012, a new law made it a felony to knowingly point the beam of a laser at an aircraft. The new law lowered the threshold for prosecution, said George Johnson, a federal air marshal who serves as a liaison officer with the Bureau on laser issues.
"The trend is on the rise for jail time in these cases," Johnson said.
In March, for example, a 26-year-old California man was sentenced to 14 years in prison for aiming a laser pointer at a police helicopter and a hospital emergency transport helicopter. The man and his girlfriend were using a device that was 13 times more powerful than the permissible power emission level for handheld lasers. The girlfriend was also convicted and recently sentenced to a two-year prison term.
The dramatic increase in the incidences of laser pointing in the last few years prompted the FBI to create a pilot program aimed at raising awareness and offering a cash reward in 12 field offices. Since that program began in February, the major metropolitan areas of those 12 field offices have seen a 19 percent decrease in the number of reported incidents.
"Although our previous efforts to raise public awareness have shown early signs of success in reducing the number of laser attacks in those 12 cities, the laser threat remains a problem on a much larger scale," said Joseph Campbell, Assistant Director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division. "We hope to build on our success through this national campaign in an effort to reduce the overall threat."
The FBI is partnering with the FAA, the Air Line Pilots Association International, law enforcement at all levels nationally and internationally, school resource officers and others to continue to educate the public about the dangers associated with laser strikes to aircraft. Those efforts include digital billboards, radio public service announcements, video, social media, a presence on http://www.fbi.gov and partner websites and more.
"I can't stress enough how dangerous and irresponsible it is to point a laser at an aircraft," said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. "We know that targeted enforcement has succeeded in driving down laser incidents in a number of cities, and we'll continue to partner with law enforcement to address this problem nationwide."
Thousands of laser attacks go unreported every year. If you have information about a lasing incident, or see someone pointing a laser at an aircraft, call 911 or the Champaign office of the FBI at 217-352-0411.