Flying Blind: laser strikes against aircraft reach record level - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Flying Blind: laser strikes against aircraft reach record level

(Source: WMC Action News 5) (Source: WMC Action News 5)
(Source: WMC Action News 5) (Source: WMC Action News 5)
MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) -

The way he described it, it was like the sky exploded in front of Adam Culbertson's cockpit.

"The reflection bounced off the bottom of the wing and into the window here," the Virginia State Police pilot showed our crew. His cockpit was lit up four times in one night.

With a laser pointer--from the ground--by a prankster. 

"The closest thing I can compare it to is looking into the sun," Culbertson said. "It could have been deadly."

Ground-to-air laser pointer attacks on aircraft are injuring pilots and, in some cases, derailing or destroying careers.

Click here for stories from around the country about the dangers of ground-to-air lasers.

"Thirty-nine pilots are out with after-effect injuries," said Chuck Dyer, a 30-year veteran pilot for FedEx and chairman of the FedEx Master Executive Council of the Airline Pilots Association, International. "Yes, these people are absolutely messing with people's lives and livelihood."

According to a WMC Action News 5 Freedom of Information Act request of the Federal Aviation Administration, there have been an average of more than 3,600 laser strikes on aircraft nationwide per year in the last seven years. That number doubled to a record 7,700 strikes last year. This year is on pace to break the record again, with laser strikes up 64 percent from the same period last year, according to LaserPointerSafety.com.

FAA records revealed between 2010 and 2014, laser pointers lit up 23 airlines, FedEx or private charter aircraft, departing from Memphis International Airport and 13 arriving into the airport. WMC Action News 5 also documented laser strikes on aircraft at airports or landing strips in Helena/West Helena, Arkansas, and in Mississippi in the cities of Tunica, Olive Branch, Holly Springs, and Corinth.

Click here to look through the more than 3,000 laser strikes from 2014.

In virtually every incident, pilots notified law enforcement and no injuries were reported. But Dyer insisted the records don't tell the whole story about the dangers of these laser instances.

"The stats I've got right now say 16 instances every day," he said. "We've had one pilot here that I'm aware of that has been out for some length of time from having his retina burned in a laser event."

Experts said the beam from a $40 to $50 laser pointer can reach 10 miles, and it gets larger the further it travels.

"People on the ground think it's funny their laser can reach 2,000 feet and hit a moving target in the air, but they don't genuinely grasp the danger they're putting themselves in and anyone on the ground," said Officer Shaun McCarthy, a pilot with the Metro Richmond (Virginia) Aviation Police.

McCarthy was running traffic control above a NASCAR race when a blinding green light flashed into his cabin.

"We're looking out the window, taking pictures, helping the ground units, then all of the sudden, our vision is gone," he said. "We're seeing spots."

McCarthy was able to direct authorities on the ground and help arrest the laser prankster. According to the FAA records, the man--whose name is redacted--sent a letter to the FAA to apologize. He explained that he was stuck in traffic outside of the race, and he pulled out the laser pointer to amuse himself.

"I was seeing how far it would shine," he wrote. "With no malicious intent, I proceeded to carry it across the sky...I was truly upset that my actions in any way could have harmed the flight crew."

Dyer said pilots are encouraged to report laser strikes not only to law enforcement, but also to the Domestic Events Network (DEN), a creation of the FAA. It is "...an inter-agency teleconferencing system that permits the agencies to communicate about and coordinate their response to violations of restricted airspace," according to a 2005 General Accounting Office report.

FBI will investigate laser pointing instances involving aircraft, which are felonies punishable up to five years in prison and $11,000 in fines.

"It's not funny. It's a felony," FBI spokesman Paul E. Diamond said. "We take it very seriously. It's not just a prank. It can be prison time."

"March of this year, a man was sentenced in California to 14 years (for an aircraft laser strike)," Dyer said. "So they're taking it seriously. We're glad they're taking it seriously."

Copyright 2016 WMC Action News 5. All rights reserved.

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