When the police officers arrived at the front door of Kimberly Rogers’ home in Compton, California, in September 2011, she asked, “Am I in trouble?” Indeed she was. The officers suspected the 27-year-old had aimed a laser pointer at a Los Angeles County Sheriff helicopter and perhaps even a Southwest Airlines flight on approach to Los Angeles International Airport.
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According to the arrest report, when confronted, Rogers pulled the pointer from her back pocket and gave it to the officers. But it was too late. She was charged with a felony under a new law intended to remedy an escalating problem. (Rogers pleaded no contest and was sentenced to five days in jail, three years probation, and 180 hours of community service.) In her small way, Rogers had contributed to California’s dubious distinction as the state with the most reported laser attacks on aircraft.
She is also an example of what some critics say is a slow and merely reactive effort to conquer the laser threat. In the United States, laser attacks on airplanes have been reported since the mid-1990s, according to Van Nakagawara, now retired from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, but the threat has grown 13-fold since the FAA started tracking laser attacks on aircraft in 2006. That year, the agency set up a website for pilots or anyone else to report laser attacks (faa.gov/aircraft/safety/report/laserinfo/), and received 384 reports. Last year, the number had grown to 3,482. Last summer the FAA reported more bad news: From January 1 to August 1, 2013, reported laser attacks grew by 22 percent over the same period the year before (from 1,868 to 2,282). The agency estimates the total for this year could reach 4,254.
In 2004, after studying a number of these cases, Nakagawara concluded the incidents were a threat because of “the distraction and temporary visual impairment they often cause for flight crew members.” He was concerned that pilots were being targeted at the exact point when the distraction is most threatening: “at low altitude during critical phases of flight.” Green lasers are especially harmful because the eye is most susceptible to damage from light in the yellow-green part of the spectrum.
Laser pointers typically are used by lecturers, by amateur astronomers pointing out stars and constellations, and by those in the construction industry measuring or establishing level surfaces. Federal regulations limit the pointers to an output of five milliwatts, but enforcement has been lax, and plenty of pointers on the market are brighter.
Each day when she arrives at work at FAA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and checks her email, agency spokeswoman Laura Brown knows her inbox will contain news of as many as 10 to 12 laser strikes from the previous night. On a typical Tuesday last spring, for example, her email included reports of attacks on a medevac helicopter in Ohio, a C-130 military transport flight off the coast of California’s Ventura County, and a Delta Air Lines MD-88 on approach to Indianapolis. She adds that in summer, high numbers of attacks occur in beach and resort communities. The reports, which help Brown prepare for calls from the media, become part of the agency’s tally of laser strikes.
People who hit aircraft with lasers can now be prosecuted under two federal laws. One, which went into effect in 2012, makes shining a laser at an aircraft punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $11,000. The other, long on the books, makes interfering with a flight crew punishable by up to 20 years and a $250,000 fine. Three persons have been sentenced so far this year for laser attacks, and nine were convicted last year, according to the FBI, which coordinates the federal response through its Laser Strike Working Group National Initiative. Members, including the FAA, U.S. Coast Guard, Federal Air Marshal Service, and Air Line Pilots Association, meet quarterly to discuss how best to combat the threat.
Supervisory Federal Air Marshal George Johnson, who is in the group and works with FBI liaison agents at major metropolitan airports, says passage of the new law “is significant. Our message is: Violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent possible. If you see someone pointing a laser at an airplane, call 911.”
In Los Angeles, where there were 541 attacks on airplanes in 2012, the campaign against lasers has a combat feel to it. Federal and California prosecutors have been aggressive in bringing charges, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Aero Bureau has one of the most concentrated anti-laser programs in the country. The command center is in a small office at Long Beach Airport.
“The sheriff has offered to be the 24/7 point of contact” for nine airports and even more helipads in the sprawling county, says Sergeant Morrie Zager. He explains how local authorities and the national working group collaborate to address the problem. Pilots have been told that when their airplane is attacked by a laser, they should contact air traffic controllers, who will call the Aero Bureau. If the attack occurs outside the bureau’s jurisdiction, the bureau will contact the area’s appropriate authorities.
“Within a minute or so of an aircraft being struck, the phone is ringing,” he says. “We will send law enforcement to investigate and put ourselves up as bait and try and apprehend the suspects.”
On a Wednesday evening last July, an L.A. County Sheriff Eurocopter AS 350 carrying deputies David MacNair and Ken Dailey in the front seats and me in the rear lifted off from the Long Beach helipad. We were in the air less than 10 minutes when the dispatcher notified the men that an airliner on approach to Los Angeles International Airport had been hit with a laser. MacNair turned the aircraft hard to the east to where the light was believed to have originated: the garden of an apartment complex. Above us, a long line of airliners on approach stretched eastward.