Laser strikes perilous to aircraft in Indiana skies; strike increase

Cases rarely prosecuted

INDIANAPOLIS - The number of laser strikes against aircraft is growing in central Indiana and statewide, but those responsible are rarely prosecuted, Call 6 Investigator Kara Kenney reported.

Pointing a laser at an aircraft is a serious safety risk and violates federal law, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

High-powered laser beams can incapacitate pilots who are trying to fly to their destinations and carrying hundreds of passengers, but the lasers are inexpensive and easy to buy at electronics stores and online.

"You could kill people,” said J.C. Buehler, an FAA-designated pilot examiner based in Indianapolis. "You could damage aircraft and cause a huge catastrophe. Airplanes come out of the sky, so it impacts not only the passengers and crew, but people on the ground and structure as well."

Kenney's analysis of federal records found that in 2011, Indiana had 44 laser strikes against airplanes, helicopters and other aircraft. In 2012, 45 incidents were recorded.

In 2013, Indiana experienced 68 laser strikes, and 10 have been documented so far in 2014.

Nationally, the FAA shows the number of laser strikes has increased by 14 times compared to 2005, with 283 incidents documented in 2005 and 3,960 in 2013.

Buehler experienced a strike while flying a commercial airplane.

"We were approaching the airport when all of a sudden, we got hit with a laser," said Buehler. "It's quite distracting."

It also happened to Scott Bishop, an Indianapolis Metro Police pilot, while flying his helicopter on the city's southeast side.

"It was disorienting and it came as a shock to us," said Bishop. "You can't take your hands off the controls when you're flying a helicopter. As a pilot, it's concerning to us out there."

Greenwood optometrist Chris Browning said lasers can cause blindness not just to a pilot's eyes, but to a child playing with a laser.

"They're not toys,” said Browning. "If the laser hits a blood vessel, it can cause a hemorrhage or bleed in the back part of the eye. There's been documented cases where there's been permanent retinal damage to young people, kids as young as 15, 11, 9."

The FBI and FAA are so concerned, they have both launched campaigns to educate and catch those responsible.
                
"We're trying to get ahead of a catastrophe," said John Kitzinger, chief of the FBI Violent Crime Unit. "It's a serious crime. It's not a prank. It's not a joke."

Children love to play with lasers, but the FBI said other violators may have a more sinister purpose.

"Pointing a laser at an aircraft is a federal crime," said Kitzinger. "It's punishable by up to five years in federal prison, and there are civil penalties as well, in excess of $250,000."

But catching those responsible for laser striking is not easy.

"You have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they're the ones that did it,” said Buehler.
 
Despite more than 17,500 recorded laser strikes since 2005, only 80 people have been convicted of the crime.

The FBI said it knows of only one arrest in Indiana, which happened in Jennings County in 2010 after the suspect, an 18-year-old man, hit a police helicopter.

The RTV6 chopper experienced a laser strike last summer, and our crew was able to figure out where the beam was coming from.

IMPD showed up and confiscated the laser, but the man was not arrested or charged.

"We did review the case but chose to decline prosecution," said Tim Horty, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of Indiana. "There was some dispute as to who pointed the laser. (There was a young girl present at the time)."

Buehler hopes people get the message about lasers before it's too late.

"It's time for parental control," said Buehler. "This is something that could cause some very serious problems."

If you're buying your children lasers, make sure to check out the package and heed any warnings, Browning said.

"Really, you don't want to buy your kids anything that has a classification of three or higher," said Browning.

The FBI’s recent campaign included 12 cities nationwide, but not Indianapolis.

"Because of the success of the initial campaign, we're considering expanding it to other cities," said Kitzinger.
        
To report a laser strike -- http://www.faa.gov/mobile/?event=laser or http://www.faa.gov/aircraft/safety/report/laserinfo/
 

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