F.B.I. to Probe Mystery Lasers Aimed at Planes

By Elizabeth Shogren and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar

Los Angeles Times

December 31, 2004

WASHINGTON — The FBI is investigating seven incidents of lasers apparently being directed at planes that were preparing to land at airports around the country over the last six days, a federal official said Thursday.

"It could be anything," said the security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It could be people got new toys for Christmas and they thought it would be great to test them on airplanes — or anything else."

Authorities are concerned about the incidents because the intense lights can startle, distract, disorient or even temporarily blind a pilot, creating a safety risk. Pilots obviously rely heavily on their eyesight to operate their aircraft and keep their passengers and others out of harm's way, federal officials noted.

Federal law enforcement officials have previously expressed fears that terrorists could use lasers as weapons, and last month the Department of Homeland Security sent a bulletin to law enforcement offices around the country about the risks of lasers, FBI and Homeland Security Department officials said.

But Thursday, department spokeswoman Katy Mynster said: "We have no specific information that these incidents have any terrorism nexus at this time."

Authorities have received no threats or warnings connected with the incidents, and they are unsure what to make of them.

The latest incident took place Wednesday night in Teterboro, N.J., just northwest of New York City, and involved a business jet. Three incidents took place Monday, two of them in Colorado Springs, Colo., and a third in Cleveland. Three other incidents took place on Christmas Day, one each in Houston, Medford, Ore., and at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport.

All of the flights landed safely.

Pilots described beams of green light being directed at the cockpits. The lasers caused no reported damage, either to pilots' eyesight or to any of the aircraft, but they have caused temporary eye injuries to pilots in the past.

It is against the law to intentionally shine a laser at a commercial aircraft.

The recent incidents are the latest of several hundred reports of cockpits being illuminated by lasers in recent years, according to a Federal Aviation Administration report issued in June.

"As long as these lasers have been commercially available, this problem has been prevalent," an FBI spokesperson said Thursday.

In most cases, when the FBI investigated incidents of lasers being beamed at cockpits, the agency learned that the incidents were accidental.

"Incidents have happened sporadically over time and have for the most part been accidental," said an official of the Department of Homeland Security who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In recent years, laser devices of various strengths have become affordable, and they are readily available commercially to be used for a wide range of purposes.

Stargazers, for instance, use lasers to direct attention to particular stars or planets. Carpenters use lasers to provide a straight line for hanging kitchen cabinets or drywall. Lasers are also used in handgun and rifle sights, supermarket scanners and a variety of medical devices.

Laser light shows, which are routine at amusement parks and shopping malls throughout the country, are controlled and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which consults with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Regulations forbid shining the lights higher than 3,000 feet and require that laser light shows be registered with local FAA offices.

No aviation accidents have been reported because of the lasers, but there have been a large number of incidents that have resulted in visual or operational problems, according to the FAA report on the issue.

On Oct. 30, 1995, the pilot of a Southwest Airlines flight departing from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas reported that a laser beam sweeping through the cockpit caused him to be temporarily blinded.

The pilot could not focus or interpret any instrument indications and was disoriented for several minutes, so the other pilot in the cockpit took control of the aircraft.

Commercial pilots have expressed concern about the laser issue.

"It's not some kid," Paul Rancatore, a pilot who serves as deputy chairman of the security committee for the Allied Pilots Assn., told Associated Press. "It's too organized."

The June FAA report concluded that "a laser attack could be quickly deployed and withdrawn, leaving no obvious collateral damage or projectile residue, and would be difficult to detect and defend against."

"A sufficiently powerful laser could cause permanent ocular damage, blinding crew members, and make a successful landing virtually impossible," the report said.

"The potential for an aviation accident definitely exists," it continued.

"It's a low-tech way to cause crashes," Rancatore said.