Aug. 26--On Aug. 12, a Boeing 767 commercial night flight from Hawaii was six miles out from Mineta San Jose International Airport when it was struck with a laser beam. The brilliant green light flooded the cockpit like a rock concert spotlight, blinding the pilot enough to force the co-pilot to land the plane alone.
The culprit was never found.
Tuesday night, while on a routine helicopter patrol 1,000 feet above the San Jose-Milpitas border, a San Jose police pilot and his Santa Clara County sheriff's aerial spotter were blasted with a green laser light. They tracked the source to a home, called in ground units and two 22-year-old men were arrested. The men may face felony federal charges and, if convicted, prison time. In the back seat of one of the suspect's cars, officers found the pen-sized laser pointer that had been purchased from Amazon.com.
These incidents are close-call examples of a quickly growing, dangerous problem that has local law enforcement and aviation officials scrambling. Hundreds of times a year, pranksters using powerful laser pointers that can be purchased for as little as $8.99 are shining their lights at aircraft, posing a danger to the flight crew and passengers.
San Jose International had the fifth-most reported laser strikes on planes in the country, according to the latest information from the FAA. Oakland International Airport ranked fourth, but officials did not release the
numbers of strikes per airport.
Two weeks ago, about 80 officials from Santa Clara County and federal law enforcement agencies, along with San Jose airport operations officials, gathered for an emergency meeting at Applied Materials in Santa Clara to discuss how to combat the problem. Their strategy revolves around communicating more efficiently with each other, educating the public about the danger and asking for help in reporting the incidents.
"This needs to be stopped," said San Jose police Officer Michael Lutticken, who handles counterterrorism projects and infrastructure protection. "The majority of people who do this are not terrorists. They think of it as entertainment. They are not thinking of the repercussions. My grandma, their grandmothers, our families are flying in these planes."
Laser strikes have been reported by pilots all over the world with increasing frequency since the mid-2000s. During a single night at Seattle-Tacoma Airport last year, 12 planes were struck with laser beams as they were landing. All reportedly had to pull out of their landings and try again. Federal officials say they are not aware of any crashes caused by a laser strike.
But officials say that the problem is growing "exponentially" with the increased power, affordability and availability of laser pointers.
The FAA reported 947 strikes on commercial aircraft in 2008; 1,489 in 2009. And so far in this year, there have been 1,251 reported strikes on commercial aircraft in the U.S. About a third of the incidents nationwide have been reported in California, officials said.
Chicago's O'Hare Airport has the most strikes and Los Angeles International the second. But why in San Jose?
The U.S. Marshals Service Office theorizes it may be due to the number of people involved or interested in high tech. While some portion of the laser shooters are thought to be middle-aged methamphetamine users looking for thrills, other shooters are young, well-educated and interested in science, science fiction and are tech-savvy, officials believe.
Lasers were first marketed to the public as conference pointers and pet toys, usually exuding a thin, relatively weak red beam. But in recent years there has been an emergence of green lasers, popular with astronomy professors aiming their powerful beams to point out stars and planets.
"As anybody who has subjected themselves to relatives taking photos would know, it blanks out your vision," said Seth Shostak, a nationally known astronomer based in Mountain View.
Today's laser pointers, which are also used as weapons sights, can blind people at a distance, like the military pilot who federal officials reported had to be grounded for six months while his eyes healed. Many cases of laser strikes are not reported, officials said.
Pointing a laser at an aircraft is against both state and federal law and carries up to a three-year prison stint with fines.
Tuesday night, sheriff's deputy Leo Gonzalez, using his night vision goggles for protection, traced the green beam to a gated community off Ambra Way in San Jose as San Jose police Officer Michael Sullivan guided the SJPD's Eurocopter EC 120 toward the laser.
At the secured entrance gate, police stopped a car driven by Ervin Ancheta, who soon admitted to officers that he had aimed the laser at the flight, police said. Later, investigators also arrested his friend Quan Nguyen.
Both men apologized, police said, and said they did not mean any harm.
Contact Sean Webby at 408-920-5003.
The TOP 5
Top airports in U.S. for reported laser strikes:
1. Chicago O'Hare
2. Los Angeles
3. Phoenix Sky Harbor
5. Mineta San Jose