While the safety of passengers and crew is the primary concern when experiencing a laser strike, pilots can also provide invaluable information that can lead to prosecution. There are three ways for pilots to report incidents:
1. Hit the transponder identification button as soon as pilots are aware of being lased. This will mark the plane’s position on the air traffic controller’s radar scope, which may help law enforcement triangulate where the laser light is originating from.
2. Verbally alert ATC of the attack using the phrase “laser attack,” including direction and location of the laser source, beam color and length of exposure (flash, pulsed or perceived intentional tracking).
3. Once on the ground, complete the FAA-requested Laser Beam Exposure Questionnaire.
Prosecuting Laser Attacks
Interfering with the operation of an aircraft has long been a federal crime, but the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 made it a federal felony to knowingly point the beam of a laser at an aircraft. The crime carries a punishment of up to five years in prison and a fine up to $250,000.
Some successful recent prosecutions include:
- A California man was sentenced to 14 years in prison for aiming a laser pointer at a Fresno Police Department helicopter (later reduced to five years on appeal)
- A Florida man was sentenced to six months in prison and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine for aiming a laser at aircraft departing Orlando International Airport, causing pilots to make evasive maneuvers during a critical time in flight
- A Nebraska man was sentenced to 24 months in prison for shining a laser pointer at a police helicopter
Benefits of Reporting Laser Strikes
In March 2012, a California man shined a commercial-grade laser pointer into the cockpit of Cessna Citation landing at Burbank Bob Hope Airport. The affected pilot immediately reported the incident and authorities were able to use this information to locate and apprehend the perpetrator, who was subsequently sentenced to 30 months in federal prison.
This case demonstrates the important role pilots play in the effort to bring those committing criminal activities to justice. Reporting perpetrators leads to more prosecutions and convictions, sending a clear message that engaging in this reckless behavior comes with severe consequences.
With 2016 laser incidents up 64% over the same period in 2015, according to the FAA, it is more imperative than ever for the aviation industry to fight back against this severe threat to airspace safety. Providing law enforcement with information about laser strikes is the most effective tool at a pilot’s disposal – a tool that has and will continue to hold those endangering public safety accountable for their actions.