Thirty-four commercial flights reported lasers pointed at them Wednesday night as they flew over New Jersey — the latest in a growing number of such dangerous incidents plaguing U.S. skies.
There was no indication the 43 incidents detailed Thursday and Friday by the Federal Aviation Administration led to any notable injuries or accidents, in the air or on the ground. Still, they speak to an alarming trend in which more and more people are directing powerful handheld lasers at passing aircraft — endangering crews, not to mention the passengers they are responsible for.
About half of the incidents reported by the FAA were close to Newark Liberty International Airport, while the others occurred elsewhere in New Jersey — from Robbinsville, near the Pennsylvania border, to Ocean City, along the Atlantic Ocean in the southeast corner of the state.
Three American Airlines planes were among those affected, as were two from JetBlue and one each from United, Delta and Republic.
Five planes informed air traffic controllers in the Newark Liberty tower “that lasers were being pointed at them” between 10 and 11 p.m. Wednesday, according to Ron Marisco, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the Newark airport as well as Kennedy and LaGuardia airports in New York.
“The incidents are under investigation,” Marisco said.
Dangerous, growing trend
So-called laser attacks aren’t unprecedented, but they are on the rise, as handheld lasers become more common and affordable. There were 3,894 such strikes reported in 2014, the FAA says. For comparison’s sake, there were only 283 in 2005.
That works out to about 10.5 incidents a day. But that’s nationwide, so the 11 reported attacks over New Jersey alone in one night do seem to stand out.
The government has been trying to stop such attacks, whether the intent is malicious or not, with President Barack Obama signing a law in 2012 making it a federal crime to aim a laser pointer at an aircraft.
“When aimed at an aircraft from the ground, the powerful beam of light from a handheld laser can travel more than a mile and illuminate a cockpit, disorienting and temporarily blinding pilots,” the Transportation Security Administration notes on its website. “Those who have been subject to such attacks have described them as the equivalent of a camera flash going off in a pitch black car at night.”
And being zapped with a laser isn’t just annoying, it can be dangerous, with the potential to burn a pilot’s cornea and cause serious injury. Direct hit have put pilots in the hospital.
In 2013, Adam Gardenhire, 19, was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison in California by U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson for shining a laser pointer at a plane and police helicopter. The pilot of a corporate jet was hit in the eye multiple times and had vision problems through the next day, according to court documents.
In 2012, Glenn Stephen Hansen, 49, of Orlando pleaded guilty to aiming the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft. From January through March 2012, Hansen aimed the beam of a laser at passenger aircraft departing Orlando International Airport on at least 23 occasions, according to court documents. His action caused pilots to take evasive maneuvers during takeoff and placed the aircraft in danger during a critical time in flight, officials said.
In an effort to mitigate these occurences, the FBI launched a campaign last winter offering as much as $10,000 to anyone who can provide information leading to the arrest of a person pointing a laser at an aircraft.