State lawmakers push to criminalize pointing lasers at planes

SPRINGFIELD — Though security has tightened inside airports, a growing threat to flight safety is looming right outside its boundaries, and it's coming from an unlikely source — laser pointers.

O'Hare International Airport reported the second-most incidents in the country last year of green laser pointers being flashed into the cockpits of planes, which can interfere with pilots' vision as they take off or approach for a landing.

O'Hare reported 98 incidents last year, out of 2,836 total in the U.S., according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Midway Airport was not in the top 20, with fewer than 26 laser flashes reported. The national total is more than double the number in 2009.

Republican state Rep. Dave Winters wants the legislature to create state criminal charges that can be used against people who shoot laser pointers at pilots.

Winters, who is also a pilot from Shirland, near Rockford, said there is not enough protection against an offense that could temporarily blind pilots and cause devastation.

“Fortunately, there (are) no known incidents of a laser pointer downing a plane,” Winters said. “But the minute there is, it's too late.”

One Chicago pilot experienced the dangers of flash blindness last week.

Ben Bohlman, a pilot for Pinnacle Airlines, was flying from Minneapolis to Kalamazoo, Mich., when he spotted a green beam to the left of the plane. He said the person wielding the laser pointer “painted” the plane, causing bursts of green light to hit the cockpit for about 10 seconds.

Bohlman and his co-pilot were able to regain their vision in time to land as the plane was still on autopilot at about 2,000 feet above ground level.

“I don't think people understand how dangerous it is,” Bohlman said. “And if they do you have to start to question what their intent really is.”

FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory said the agency handles reports and notifies law enforcement officials who can then decide whether to pursue the matter. Many times, the laser pointer is being shot from an area close enough to the airport to hit the cockpit as the plane is landing or taking off, she said.

Both Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Congress have looked at pursuing stricter federal penalties for offenders.

“We want to see these laser events stopped because they pose a risk not only to persons in the air, but persons on the ground,” Cory said. “Anything that would deter these types of events from happening is a good thing.”

Winters said the FAA is able to protect commercial airlines to a certain extent, but laser blindness can be even more devastating for independent pilots who do not have a co-pilot to aid them.

The lasers most often used are not the red ones commonly seen in lectures and presentations, but much stronger green beams used for stargazing. Green lasers have a range of close to 2 miles and the full beam can be seen at night.

Chris Dancy, media relations director for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said the combination of the green laser's strength and the critical nature of landing and taking off creates a highly dangerous situation for the pilot.

“I think folks who own a laser need to understand this is not a trivial issue,” Dancy said. “It really is a safety of flight issue that could cause mortal peril.”

Laser pointers have been a known problem in the flight community, but the FAA did not start reporting incidents until 2005, Dancy said. Since then, the number has risen from 300 in 2005.

Winters' proposed legislation could mean a $2,500 fine and up to one year in prison for offenders.