On Wednesday morning, U.S. Airways Flight 674 was struck by a laser as it approached Los Angeles International Airport, affecting the vision of the plane's pilot. It was a profoundly unsafe situation, which luckily ended without incident. The plane, which landed safely, had been about 8,000 feet up when the pilot was struck by a green laser beam, pointed at the aircraft by someone on the ground below. And lest there be any confusion about just how serious this is, it was earlier this month that the FBI began offering $10,000 rewards for people who reported airplane laser-strikers.
The reason the FBI decided to start offering such a hefty sum is probably because because of the mounting scale of the problem. Over the course of 2013, the FAA reported a whopping 3960 laser incidents, just under 11 per day. It's no wonder why the problem could get so out of hand, considering laser pointers are so relatively cheap and widely available — the cheapest consumer-grade pointers can be easily purchased for as little as $10 over the internet, with heavier-duty models running up towards the $100 range, and there's no degree of limitation or regulation on their sale.
But people buying them should heed at least one rule: do not aim that pointer into crowded skies. Ever.
1. It's Incredibly Dangerous
This goes without saying, but getting a laser to the eye can cause temporary or even long-term damage. It's especially destructive when shone into a cockpit, to boot, as the glass of the windshield scatters the light, creating a far-more aggressive flashbulb effect. Beyond the health and safety of the man in the cockpit whom could end up blind, there's also a full plane of innocent people on board.
Whatever the reason for doing so — the thrill of thinking "hey, maybe I'll cause a plane to crash," we guess? — it's basically taking people lives in hand just to be an annoyance. It's like being an internet troll, if internet trolling had the potential to bring down a commercial airliner.
There are always safety features in play to help avoid such calamity, of course. Every plane has two pilots, as well as automated systems to keep things running smoothly. But when a whole cockpit suddenly flashes with bright laser-light, there's no guarantee both pilots won't be blinded, let alone startled. And it's all the more dangerous when done so close to landing, at such a low-altitude over a city, as it was Wednesday. To say nothing of simply injuring a pilot's eyes, potentially for the long-term.
2. Law Enforcement Knows How Serious it is
Look no further than March of this year, when 26-year-old Sergio Rodriguez of Clovis, California and his girlfriend were convicted for shining a laser pointer not at a plane, but at two helicopters — one belonging to the Fresno police, and the other to a children's hospital.
The implement that caused all this trouble was a high-powered laser pointer, affordable at just $50, and Rodriguez landed himself in prison for 14 years as a result. And if that sounds harsh, well, don't try to blind pilots working for children's hospitals.
3. It's Not Even a Fun Use of a Laser Pointer
Laser pointers are really visually exciting, and can be pretty cool to fool around with. Anyone who's flashed a beam across a darkened wall, ourselves included, can attest to the charm.
But in addition to becoming complicit in a possible crash, shining it at an airplane has no real entertainment value. It's not as though you can see the laser flashing off the plane at such a staggering distance, and obviously, the visual component of a laser display is generally where the appeal comes in. It risks years in prison, and a deeply marred conscience, in service of a sight-unseen prank.
Hopefully people will start deciding to play around with cute cats instead, which is a hell of a lot more fun than squinting up at a passing plane anyway.