SPOKANE, Wash. - The FBI is investigating another incident of someone using a laser to target airplanes in our area after Spokane Police responded to a home near the intersection of Lacey St. and East Nebraska Ave. after neighbors saw laser beams shooting skyward.
Laser strikes are a common occurrence at Spokane International Airport as well as on the approaches to Fairchild Air Force Base. It's happened 33 times here in Washington state since the beginning of the year and while it may seem like a harmless prank, the FBI isn't laughing, and neither are flight crews.
Hand held lasers are fun to play with but they're a lot stronger than you might think. Even from more than a mile away, laser beams can light up a cockpit and temporarily blind the pilots. Pilots that have been hit by laser strikes report brief seconds of blindness, then that ghosting you see after someone takes your pictures with a flash and all of this is going on when a plane is on final approach to land, which is statistically the most dangerous part of a flight.
"It is a tremendous distraction within the flight deck. It is a very real safety hazard, and it brings the very real possibility of having an aircraft accident," Captain Robert Hamilton with the Airline Pilots Association said.
One of the favorite targets of laser-wielding pranksters is the Spokane Sheriff's helicopter Air 1. The orbits they fly over searches and pursuits makes them vulnerable to multiple laser strikes.
"It's very obvious when people are doing it. It doesn't have to be a high powered laser. it can be one of the small ones that you play with your animals with. It's very obvious and yes it's a huge distraction not only for the pilots but the tactical flight officers as well," Spokane County Sheriff's Deputy Craig Chamberlin said.
As laser technology becomes more accessible and affordable the number of aircraft laser strikes has increased 1,100-percent since 2005. It's dangerous for aircraft as well as people on the ground and so the FBI is zeroing in on the problem
"If you're a teenager and you think this is a joke, be very careful of the choices you make. You won't get a second chance. If you're identified you'll have a record that will follow you for the rest of your life," FBI Special Agent John Kitzinger said.
The FBI is now asking for the public's help in spotting the sources of lasing incidents.
"Anyone who provides information that leads to the arrest of anybody doing this absolutely ridiculous stunt $10,000 reward. They're not messing around, this is extremely dangerous," Chamberlin said.
In cities where the FBI has tested its reward program they saw a 19-percent decrease in lasing incidents. Lasing a plane is a felony and can get you locked up in federal prison for five years.