WASHINGTON — Pilots from time to time
encounter laser beams that stray into the cockpit on
approach to an airport, but a recent rash of such
incidents — at least seven since Christmas — has them
worried about an organized effort to take down
Though there have been no reports of accidents caused
by lasers, they can temporarily blind and disorient a
pilot and could lead to a plane crash.
The FBI is investigating whether the incidents are
pranks, accidents or something more sinister.
Federal agents are looking into two incidents in
Colorado Springs, Colo., and one each in Cleveland,
Washington, Houston, Teterboro, N.J., and Medford, Ore.,
according to law enforcement and transportation
officials, some of whom spoke only on condition of
Scientists discount the possibility that pilots are
merely the victims of a popular new Christmas toy or
jokesters toying with a $19 laser pointer from an
Loren Thompson, who teaches
military technology at Georgetown University, said a
piece of equipment that could do the things the FBI is
investigating would be “fairly expensive and fairly
He characterized it as a
reasonably powerful visible light laser that can lock
onto a fast-moving aircraft. “That’s not the sort of
thing you pick up at a military surplus store,” he said.
Law enforcement officials say they have no evidence
of an organized effort to take down planes. Further,
they say they’ve had reports of similar incidents since
the technology became popular.
But a memo sent to law enforcement agencies recently
by the FBI and the Homeland Security Department says
there is evidence that terrorists have explored using
lasers as weapons, though there is no intelligence that
indicates they might use them in the United States.
Pilots and safety officials have long been concerned
about the dangers of lasers used in light shows or to
attract the public to an event.
Hundreds of cases of lasers shining into pilots’ eyes
have been reported over the past decade; in several, the
pilots sustained damage to their eyes.
Most recently, a pilot for Delta Air Lines reported
an eye injury from a laser beamed into the cockpit while
approaching the Salt Lake City airport in September. The
plane landed safely.
The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates
laser light shows, consults with the Federal Aviation
Administration when someone wants to operate a laser
outdoors near an airport. The FAA recommends the maximum
safe level of laser light exposure for pilots
maneuvering near airports.
An FAA-commissioned study released in June
acknowledged the possibility that terrorists could use a
laser to attack an aircraft — and that it would be hard
to detect and to defend against.
“A sufficiently powerful laser could cause permanent
ocular damage, blinding crew members and make a
successful landing virtually impossible,” the report
Rob Sproc, a pilot who serves as vice president of
the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, says pilots should
have heard about the recent laser incidents from the
government, not from the news media.