More fools in Phoenix pointed lasers at aircraft in 2015 than in any other city in the United States, Federal Aviation Administration statistics show.
There have been 170 reported events here last year — nearly double the 93 incidents from 2014 — making Phoenix first in the nation in laser-to-plane events, according to the FAA.
Across the country the number of laser strikes surged in 2015. As of October 15, there had been 5,148 reports while there were 3,891 in 2014 and 3,960 in 2013.
There are a number of reasons laser pointing is on the rise, says Ian Gregor, spokesman for the FAA.
“Lasers are increasingly available on the Internet, and the price of the devices has dropped,” Gregor says. “The power level of these devices has also increased substantially during the last few years, meaning they are capable of hitting planes at higher altitudes.”
It’s anyone's guess why the prank is particularly popular in Phoenix. The city also ranked first in 2011 and 2012. But reported incidents had dropped in the two years before this one.
Aiming a laser at a plane is very dangerous, experts say. When pointed at an aircraft from the ground, a handheld laser can project a powerful light beam that can travel more than a mile and illuminate a cockpit, disorienting and temporarily blinding pilots. Instead of seeing a tiny light beam, pilots experience a wide light beam that fills the window of the cockpit.
“It’s like a diamond,” says airline pilot Daniel Waring. “Our windshields are like 10 layers. When the light reflects off the windshield, it's blinding.”
A few years ago, Waring was co-pilot on a flight to Texas when a laser hit his windshield.
“I saw something, and I was like ‘man what’s that bright light?’” says Waring, an Arizona native who often flies into Phoenix. “It caught my pilot directly in the eye, and he couldn’t see a thing."
The pilot nearly diverted the landing, when the light disappeared and he suddenly regained his vision. Fortunately, he was able to land safely.
“The most dangerous time is takeoff and landing,” Waring says. “If we [had been] closer to the ground, it could have ended differently.”
It’s notoriously difficult to catch people who deliberately shine a laser at an aircraft. But when apprehended, perpetrators can face hefty fines and federal charges of up to five years in prison.
The FAA doesn’t keep track of all state and city arrests for laser strikes. But between 2012 and 2013, the agency investigated 152 cases of laser-to-plane attacks and took 96 "enforcement actions."
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“I am seeing more people arrested for engaging in this irresponsible behavior,” Gregor says.
Besides people pointing lasers at planes as a misguided kind of fun, experts say some people do it with malicious intentions.
But for the most part, Waring says, “I don’t think people know how bad it is or how dangerous it can be.”
(A version of this story appeared November 5, 2015.)