58th SOW, APD ask public not to point lasers at aircraft

  • Published
  • By John Cochran
  • 377th Air Base Wing

Aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft in flight could be catastrophic for the affected aircrew and possibly for people on the ground.

That's the message the commander of the 58th Special Operations Wing at Kirtland AFB wants the public to know.

“We train hundreds of aircrew members a year to do combat search and rescue, special operations missions, and missile site security. Some of their training happens at night, to prepare them for the missions they’ll perform after they graduate and join their operational squadrons. During night flights, our students and instructors can be exposed to being lased from the ground. The sudden burst of bright light from a laser pointer entering the cockpit can affect and even damage their vision, putting them, their aircraft, and potentially people on the ground in their flight path, at serious risk. For everyone’s safety, we ask the public to please refrain from pointing lasers at any aircraft – military, commercial or general aviation,” said Col. Michael Curry.

Contrary to what laser users may think, the devices’ compact size, easy availability, and widespread ownership can make hand-held lasers, such as the pointers used in classrooms, significantly dangerous to aircrews.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation emphasizes that lasing an aircraft in flight is a federal crime, punishable by $250,000 fines and up to five years of imprisonment.

“When aimed at an aircraft from the ground, the powerful beam of light from a handheld laser can travel more than a mile and illuminate a cockpit, disorienting and temporarily blinding pilots. Those who have been subject to such attacks have described them as the equivalent of a camera flash going off in a pitch-black car at night,” the FBI said on its website.

A laser’s intense light can cause flash blindness in pilots and aircrew members during critical phases of flight, such as airfield approach and landing. Disrupted vision could cause ineffective aircraft control measures, possibly leading to the loss of the aircraft and crew, and even endangering people on the ground below.

According to local, state and national sources, lasing aircraft is a growing aviation safety concern nationwide, across New Mexico, and for airline traffic operating in and out of the Sunport. For all aviators, safe operation of their aircraft is always the first priority. The potential for catastrophic effects due to laser strikes is a real issue that could affect any of our family and friends flying into Albuquerque for a visit, or returning here from a trip away.

Sgt. Will Taylor, chief pilot and supervisor of the Albuquerque Police Department’s air support unit since 2010, has been on the job for 28 years. He experienced his first aircraft lasing in 1996, and has continued to encounter them since.

Taylor spoke about the laser threat, and the rapid, direct and significant actions the police take to counteract it.

“About two to three nights a week, our aircraft get lased. We’ve become very good at catching these individuals, and we don’t need long to do it. Once they start lasing our aircraft, we need about five seconds, if we’re in the right position, and we can lock in on them. We notify dispatch with the location details and have one of our ground units make contact with the individuals. Our officers write a report, and sometimes the laser is confiscated. We also forward evidence we’ve developed to the regional enforcement branch of the Federal Aviation Administration in El Paso for enforcement action,” he said.

The veteran law enforcement officer outlined the severe legal consequences an individual can face for lasing aircraft.

“If you directly cause an incident in which there’s loss of life, when you’ve used a laser to interfere with an aircrew, you’re looking at imprisonment and possible manslaughter charges,” he said.

The APD pilot explained what happens inside the cockpit when someone points a laser at an aircraft.

“The light from a laser pointer – a little green dot – after it travels two or three miles, it’s two or three feet in diameter. It hits the acrylic windows, with all the micro-scratches, and it flares the whole thing out and completely blinds the crew. People don’t understand that. We want to get people to realize that what they’re doing may seem innocent, but it’s actually very dangerous,” he said.

Taylor also said that because the University of New Mexico Hospital is the primary trauma center in the state, life flight medical helicopters frequently fly into the Albuquerque area. They can land at three different helipads – UNMH, Presbyterian Hospital and the Heart Hospital downtown.

“If you lase one of them on final approach, that could get nasty, for the pilot, the flight crew, and patients. That could get brutal,” he said.

According to FAA data, between 2010 and 2021, 67,558 laser incidents have been reported in the United States and U.S. territories. New Mexico has seen a 218% increase in reports since 2019, ranking seventh out of the 50 states for most laser incidents per capita. Lt. Col. Nick Muley, 58th SOW chief of safety, said that the wing’s aircrews reported experiencing 20 lasing incidents between August 2020 and August 2021.

The FAA reported that the number of aircraft laser strikes in 2021 set a new record. The agency said it received 9,723 reports from pilots, a 41 percent increase over 2020. Pilots have reported 244 injuries since the FAA began recording data on laser strikes in 2010.

Penalties can be severe for people who shine lasers at aircraft – FAA fines of up to $11,000 per violation and up to $30,800 for multiple laser incidents. In 2021, the agency issued $120,000 in fines for laser strikes. Violators can also face criminal penalties from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. The FAA encourages the public to report laser strikes to them and local law enforcement agencies.

For more information, go to https://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/lasers.