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.
One possible reason for the increasing number of incidents is that the cost of laser pointers is dropping while their intensity is increasing, Peter Baker, executive director of the Laser Institute of America, said Wednesday.
Baker, whose organization promotes laser safety, said most stores sell only the weaker red lasers, which can still cause problems. But online, consumers can purchase green lasers which can be 20 to 40 times more powerful and potentially more damaging to the eye than red ones, Baker said.
Green lasers, which used to cost as much as $400, now go for less than $100.
"If a plane is flying low, and it bounced off the cockpit, it just might give a little bit of dazzle in the eye" that distracts them, Baker said.
Delta Air Lines pilot Parry Winder was struck with a green laser spot while he was flying into Salt Lake City in September 2004.
"The intensity of the light is nearly indescribable, other than the fact that I would liken it to looking at an arc welder without a safety mask," Winder said before Congress last year. "It was very intense and very short-lived. I turned away immediately, closed my eye."
Winder started to see spots in his right eye and had problems with his depth perception, but he managed to safely land the plane. But in the days that followed, he said, he saw black spots, got intense headaches and his retina swelled. Winder wasn't able to fly for about three weeks.
No one was arrested in Winder's case, but he and other pilots with the Air Line Pilots Association say they are increasingly vulnerable to lasers, which can shine into cockpit windows of planes at low altitudes.
A June 2004 report by the FAA warned that terrorists could take down aircraft by shining powerful lasers into cockpits to blind pilots. But so far, none of the more than 400 cases have been linked to terrorism, the Department of Homeland Security has told FAA officials.
Contact NIRAJ WARIKOO at 248-351-2998 or nwarikoo@freepress
Hand-held lasers are often sold as pointers for presentations. (CANDACE WEST/Knight Ridder-Tribune)
Pointers aren't toys
Shining laser pointers into the eyes of pilots, drivers or anyone else can result in serious problems, experts say. They can also be a danger to kids and others who use them in work or at home. Laser pointers are often used for office presentations or sometimes to teach.
Victims may become distracted, disoriented or temporarily blinded enough to cause them to lose control of their vehicles.
In one case, a Delta Airlines pilot suffered a swollen retina, had intense headaches and saw spots. He was forced to quit flying for about three weeks.
* Never shine a laser pointer at anyone. Laser pointers are designed to illustrate inanimate objects.
* Do not allow minors to use a pointer unsupervised. Laser pointers are not toys.
* Do not aim a laser pointer at mirror-like surfaces. A reflected beam can act like a direct beam on the eye.
* Do not purchase a laser pointer if it does not have a caution or danger sticker on it identifying its class.
Sources: Laser Institute of America; congressional testimony
Call the FBI
If you have any information on who may have been shining lasers into airplanes Monday night, you can call the FBI's Detroit office anytime at 313-965-2323.
Dearborn Heights police say the shining happened sometime between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. Police believe the lasers were near the Home Depot at 25451 Michigan Ave., west of Gulley Road, and near McDonald's at 4145 Telegraph, north of Lehigh Street.