Misuse of hand-held laser pointers is a growing safety problem for aircraft and federal officials are stepping up their efforts to apprehend offenders. 

One of those snared recently is Justin Stouder, 24, who was aiming a laser pointer at a distant tower from his suburban St. Louis yard one April evening in 2010 when a police helicopter appeared in his line of sight more than a mile away.

At the time, Stouder had no idea that his decision to point the laser at the helicopter was a federal felony—or that the beam of light might have serious consequences for the pilot and his crew.

“It’s equivalent to a flash of a camera if you were in a pitch black car at night,” said St. Louis Metropolitan Police Officer Doug Reinholz, the pilot on patrol that night when Stouder’s green hand-held laser “painted” his cockpit. “It’s a temporary blinding to the pilot,” he said during a recent news conference highlighting the danger of lasers directed at airplanes and helicopters.

Interfering with the operation of an aircraft is a crime punishable by a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and laser incidents are on the rise.

Since the FBI and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began keeping records of laser events in 2004, “there has been an exponential increase every year,” said Tim Childs from the Federal Air Marshal Service, who serves as a liaison officer with the Bureau on laser issues.

Seven per day

In 2009, there were 1,489 laser events logged with the FAA—that is, pilots reporting that their cockpits were illuminated by the devices. The following year, that figure had nearly doubled to 2,836, an average of more than seven incidents every day of the year. And the overwhelming number of the incidents involved green lasersespecially dangerous because the human eye is most susceptible to damage from the yellow-green light spectrum.

Hand-held lasers—about the size of fountain pens—are used legitimately by astronomy hobbyists and in industrial applications. Anyone can purchase one, and technology has made them inexpensive and more powerful. Lasers costing as little as $1 can have ranges of two miles—strong enough to target a variety of aircraft.

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