Feb. 16--More than two dozen pilots flying near Detroit Metro Airport this week say someone shined a laser into their cockpits, putting them at risk from lights that could have temporarily blinded them. Law enforcement officials say it is a growing threat to aircraft safety.
Across the country, from Florida to Utah to Michigan, pilots have become increasingly worried about the use of laser pointers -- some of which can project light more than 2 miles -- aimed at their planes, either as a prank or an outright threat.
Often used for office presentations or for teaching kids about the stars, laser pointers are also capable of dazzling or disorienting a person who is struck in the eye by the spot of light, making it a grave concern for the airline industry. Congress is currently considering a proposal to make it a federal offense to shine a laser pointer at an aircraft.
"This is nothing to joke around with," said FBI Special Agent Dawn Clenney of the Detroit office. "We take it very seriously. ... There is a risk of an airplane crash."
FBI agents in Detroit said Wednesday that at least 26 pilots flying near Detroit Metro Airport on Monday night complained that someone had shined a red laser into their cockpits. According to Dearborn Heights police, the incidents occurred between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. and the suspects may have been near a McDonald's restaurant and Home Depot store near the corner of Michigan Avenue and Telegraph Road.
Police searched the area until 4 a.m. but came up with no leads, said Dearborn Heights Police Capt. Lee Gavin. No one was injured in the incidents.
Some red lasers are capable of shining a point of light a little less than a mile; other pointers -- including those equipped with more powerful green lasers -- can send a spot of light more than 2 miles.
According to the Laser Institute of America, the energy some pointers can direct into the eye has the potential of being many times brighter than staring directly at the sun.
Since 1990, more than 400 pilots across the nation have reported incidents in which they became disoriented or temporarily blinded by lasers shined into their cockpits, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. And the rate has increased in recent years as the price of lasers has continued to drop, say laser experts.
Last March, the captain of an airplane was struck by a green laser as he landed at Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport, according to testimony given before Congress. As far back as 1996, in Orlando, police Lt. Barry Smith was in a helicopter searching for burglary suspects when a red laser spot the size of a basketball hit him twice, forcing the investigator to jerk back his aircraft.
David Banach, a New Jersey man charged under an antiterrorism provision of the federal Patriot Act, may be sentenced this week for shining a laser pointer at two airplanes in December 2004, according to U.S. Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla. Banach pleaded guilty in November to the charge. Even though officials said he wasn't a terrorist, it was the only law prosecutors believed they could use -- underscoring the need for a proposed federal law, say proponents.
"It's only a matter of time before one of these laser beam pranksters ends up killing over 200 people in a commercial airline crash," Keller said during congressional debate in December.
Keller's legislation would make it a federal crime to knowingly aim a laser pointer at an aircraft. Those found guilty could be fined or imprisoned up to 5 years.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill in December and is working with the Senate on an amended version that is expected to pass, House Transportation Committee officials said Wednesday.
Monday night's incidents over western Wayne County weren't the only times lasers have been a problem in metro Detroit. Last fall, police and FBI officials reported several other similar cases.
Pilots are concerned about a surge in such incidents _ there have been 112 since November, roughly one-quarter of all such cases reported in the past 15 years.
Airliner landed safely at O'Hare
FBI announced yesterday they'll give rewards of up to $10,000 for tips leading to the arrest of illegal laser pointers
Pilots reported a green laser hitting their cockpits twice Monday and three times Tuesday.