On a foggy night in December 2018, David Hill was trying to land a helicopter when a beam of light suddenly overwhelmed his night vision goggles.
Mr. Hill, an emergency services pilot, was called to retrieve a teen seriously injured in an all-terrain vehicle accident, from a village 55 miles north of Madison, Wisconsin.
But now Mr. Hill was temporarily blinded.
He flew about 500 feet above the ground and tried to orient himself. It was “like looking into the sun, and all I can see are bright spots,” he recalls.
One person had a laser pointed at his helicopter. Nearly 70,000 pilots reported similar episodes between 2010 and 2021, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Last year it registered more than 9,700 cases, a record high and a 41 percent increase from 2020.
When a laser pointer reaches a cockpit, the light can disorient or “completely disable” a pilot, which could account for hundreds of passengers on a commercial airliner, the FAA said. Some commercial flight paths have been disrupted, causing pilots to change course or even turn around.
“What you might see as a toy has the ability to temporarily blind the crew member,” said Billy Nolen, the FAA’s acting administrator.
While no plane has ever crashed as a result of a laser attack, Mr Nolen said in a telephone interview there was always a risk of a “tragic outcome”. He added, “This is not an arcade game.”
The FAA said one factor for the increase in laser strikes was that lasers were becoming more powerful, cheaper and easier to buy. Pilots could also get better at reporting the incidents, the agency said. Other observers point to a society that has been frayed by the pandemic for its bad behavior.
“If you invade the security of my plane, you are an aggressor,” said Captain Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, the union that represents American Airlines pilots. “These are attacks.”
It is a federal crime to knowingly point a laser pointer at an aircraft. Violators can be sentenced to up to five years in prison; the FAA can also impose civil penalties.
In April, a Philadelphia man was sentenced to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine for shining a laser at a police helicopter. In September, an Alabama man was sentenced to eight months in prison for aiming a laser at a helicopter flown by the local sheriff’s office. Also that month, a Milwaukee man was sentenced to one year in jail for aiming a laser at law enforcement planes during protests against police brutality in 2020.
In many cases, however, cases are difficult to prosecute because airplane pilots cannot easily see who is aiming the laser. By early March, there had been more than 100 incidents where lasers were aimed at planes around Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The FBI has offered a $10,000 reward to find those responsible.
In some cases, those lasers to planes have unknowingly guided law enforcement officers directly to their location.
In February 2020, while on patrol near Vacaville, California, about 85 miles northeast of San Francisco, Jan Sears, a California Highway Patrol pilot, said he was struck by a laser. His plane had an infrared camera that helped identify the source of the light.
“It’s painful,” he said of the laser, describing symptoms that can include sore and watery eyes, headaches and blurred vision. Agent Sears said he saw bright afterimages several days after the strike when he closed his eyes.
“Teenagers do stupid things,” he said. “But when you start to get adults doing it, you start to wonder, what’s your motivation?”
People who point lasers at airplanes can be roughly divided into two groups: those who are ignorant of the dangers they pose, and those who are antisocial, said Patrick Murphy, a laser safety expert who runs the LaserPointerSafety.com website.
Murphy, who also serves on a committee advising the FAA and pilots on the matter, has reported more than 100,000 such strikes worldwide since 2004. Overwhelmingly, he added, those accused of point lasers are men.
“It’s a man thing,” said Mr. Murphy, adding that when it comes to lasers, the bigger and more powerful the better. “It’s like having a ‘Star Wars’ lightsaber,” he added. “‘It’s pretty awesome: there’s a beam of energy coming out of my hand.'”
The Food and Drug Administration restricts the sale of lasers over five milliwatts for use as pointers, but experts say more powerful lasers are easy to buy and the devices are often mislabeled.
On TikTok, some videos promote powerful lasers with links to buy them. Such devices can be used at close range to pop balloons and light cigarettes.
While other countries have restricted sales of the devices, Mr. Murphy and others said such efforts in the United States were unlikely to succeed.
He and other experts said pilots should be educated about lasers for the time being and be prepared to respond to them. Many pilots have also started wearing safety glasses.
But Mr. Hill, the emergency service pilot, was unlucky.
That evening in 2018, he had to stop the rescue operation. Hours later, his eyes were still burning and sore, he said. In April 2019, he was on sick leave due to vision and balance problems. Mr Hill, now 58, retired in April.
Hill’s doctors told him they could find no evidence linking his problems to the laser attack, and experts say permanent injuries from laser attacks are extremely unlikely. However, Mr Hill said he believed there was a connection.
“I know I’ve been through this laser attack,” he said. “Just over three months later, I couldn’t fly.”
Sheelagh McNeill research contributed.