BY DIANE DIMOND
Imagine this life-or-death scenario: An airplane with hundreds of people on board is descending in the darkened sky to land at an airport. Passengers are busying themselves with tray tables, checking their children’s seat-belts and packing up their bags in anticipation of landing. Up in the cockpit, the flight crew is systematically going through their safety checklist when suddenly a blinding burst of green light assaults the craft’s windshield. The pilot and crew are momentarily blinded and certainly distracted, and in some cases they become the victims of permanent eye damage.
What just happened? Some moron on the ground messing around with a powerful handheld laser beam either carelessly or deliberately pointed the device at the aircraft.
Why would someone put an airplane full of innocent people in mortal danger? Reasons given are as numerous as the imbeciles who aim a laser at an aircraft. Some claim they were simply pointing out heavenly bodies while stargazing, or playing sword-wielding ninja games that got out of hand. Others were found by courts to have deliberately tried to wreak havoc from the ground below. Imagine what a determined team of terrorists could do with a collection of these readily available and way too powerful handheld lasers.
Laser strikes on jets are not some one-in-a-million occurrence. It’s happening more often than you probably realize. In just the first half of this year, there have been 1,500 reported laser-beam assaults on in-flight crews. Last year, there were more than 3,500 documented incidents. And when someone on the ground aims a laser at a plane, according to Mike McCarron of San Francisco International Airport, “What happens is, that pinpoint spreads out as it gets up higher and farther away, and what may seem like a very faint light to you, in a cockpit, gets almost blinding.” In other words, it’s like a surprise barrage of stunning flashbulbs going off just a few feet from someone’s face. And for pilots, it’s happening at a crucial moment.
It is a federal offense to point a laser at a plane or to interfere with a flight crew in any way, and those convicted of doing so can face up to 20 years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines. In 2007, a Massachusetts man, inconceivably, decided to shine a green laser beam at a state police helicopter. He was ultimately convicted in state court and sentenced to three years in prison. In 2009, a California man got a two-and-a-half-year federal prison sentence for aiming a laser at two planes as they were about to land at John Wayne Airport in Orange County.
Just last month, a JetBlue plane full of people was preparing to land on a Sunday evening at one of the nation’s busiest airports — JFK in New York — when one of the crew crackled through the radio to the tower that, “We were just beamed.” It happened, he said, as the plane was rapidly descending over the highly populated area of Jamaica, Queens.
The air traffic controller is heard on audiotape asking, “JetBlue 657, that was (at) about 5,000 feet, right?”
“Yes, sir, 5,000 feet. Two green flashes, and it caught the first officer in his eye,” the voice said. (It was unclear if the first officer was piloting the plane at the time).
The flight landed safely at JFK 10 minutes later, but it could have been a catastrophe — and not only for the crew and passengers, but also for the countless residents living below.
Because the number of these incidents keeps increasing, the FBI says it will continue its vigorous program of pursuing, identifying and pressing for conviction of these laser loonies. Sounds like a great idea to me.
Look, I’m no laser expert, but it didn’t take long on the Internet to understand the difference between a low-power handheld laser (used to highlight information during an office presentation or a speech) and a high-power version that can, literally, penetrate thousands of feet into the air and take out a jumbo jet.
I understand the value of lasers in all sorts of scientific, business and manufacturing applications, but why do we allow the general public to buy the most powerfully destructive models to use as virtual play toys? Anyone with a few hundred bucks can buy a professional-grade laser online, and as far as I can tell, there is no monitoring system in place to watch who is purchasing them.
After the recent incident at JFK airport, New York Sen. Charles Schumer held a news conference while holding — what else? — a laser pointer and said to the cameras, “Some people are using this technology recklessly.” He ominously added, “Some who have far more evil intent may decide to use them, as well.” Thanks for stating the obvious, Senator, and while I agree with your call for the Food and Drug Administration (which regulates lasers) to limit the distance laser can travel and to restrict sales of professional-strength lasers, I wonder what took Washington so long to recognize the problem?
Here’s one more question. With the presidential election looming, does anyone really think anything will be done about this potentially deadly problem before the end of the year?
Yeah, I don’t think so, either. What a shame.
Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email [email protected]