KCBD Investigates: Laser strikes can have pilots flying blind

KCBD Investigates: Laser strikes can have pilots flying blind

LUBBOCK, TX (KCBD) - It is distracting, dangerous, and it is a felony.

Over the last seven years, we have seen a gradual increase in reports from pilots struck by lasers, averaging around 3,700 incidents a year.

Last year, attacks nearly doubled to a record 7,700 aircraft struck by lasers.

Through an open records request, we received dozens of documents from the FAA.

Some of those documents contain descriptions from the pilots taking off and landing at major airports around the country.

A captain in Houston had to be pulled from the next flight after reporting burning eyes and a five to ten percent loss of vision.

Closer to home, a pilot reported a laser attack on a jet full of passengers landing in Dallas.

"It was blue and they were definitely trying to get us," he reported.

We can document lasers hitting pilots in the cockpits of passenger jets with major airlines including American, United and Delta.

However, planes are not the only targets.

A paramedic was injured by a laser attack on a medical helicopter landing in Dallas.

According to FAA documents, the pilot of a medical helicopter reported a laser attack right here in Lubbock.

The beam in a $40 or $50 laser can reach 10 miles and the beam only gets larger as it travels.

"When it prisms, it can go into four or five different lights into the aircraft, impacting multiple people, so it's more dangerous once it hits that glass," said Bruce Mitchell, a nurse paramedic with AeroCare.

Mitchell said they're required to use night vision goggles when it's dark outside.

We caught up with AeroCare pilot Patrick Gerdemann right after he returned from an emergency flight.

The goggles helped him land safely on an old dirt road just south of Sudan.

"You can see power lines a lot better. What the goggles allow us to do is pick out the poles. Once I can see the poles, we can figure out where the wires are going," Gerdemann said.

While the goggles are helpful, they can also be dangerous if a bright light, like a laser, is shined in their direction.

The goggles amplify your night vision by more than 5,000 times.

"The goggles have a feature in them that if they hit a bright light, the goggles will shut down and protect themselves, but because the laser would be so overwhelming, it would fry the goggles and fry the operator's retina before the goggles would shut down" Gerdemann said.

Captain Chuck Dyer knows pilots who are off the job because of a laser attack.

"The last time I heard a number it was like 39 pilots are out," Dyer said.

Dyer said he and his co-pilot were targets of a laser attack that continued to target them for several minutes.

"We were both prior military pilots so the thought has to be in your mind that you are being tracked by some weaponized system," Dyer said.

Whether someone is intentionally causing harm or it is a prank, the consequences can be the same.

"It's not funny, it's a felony. It's not a prank, it could be prison time," said Paul E. Diamond, a spokesperson with the FBI.

Pointing a laser at an aircraft became a felony in 2012.

The charge can lead to five years in prison and an $11,000 fine.

In March, a California man received a 14-year prison sentence.

Copyright 2016 KCBD. All rights reserved.