(WWBT/RNN) - Laser strikes on airplanes full of passengers- even police and MedEvac helicopters are soaring, which can have pilots flying blind.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there was a record 50 percent increase in just the last year.
For pilots, laser strikes can be disorienting and dangerous - even temporarily blinding. And those pointing lasers at planes do not realize the danger, or they’re opening themselves up to a felony charge.
“The closest thing I can compare it to is looking into the sun,” Adam Culbertson said, who is a pilot for the Virginia State Police.
Culbertson was lit up four times in one night, with one reflection bouncing off the bottom of the wing and into the window.
The number of these laser strikes nationwide is escalating. Over the last seven years, there has been a gradual increase in reports from pilots, averaging around 3,700 incidents a year.
However, laser attacks in 2015 nearly doubled to a record 7,700 strikes.
Documents from the Federal Aviation Administration contain descriptions from the pilots dealing with lasers taking off and landing at major airports around the country; 131 documented laser attacks on planes coming and going from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, 194 in Charlotte, and 170 over the skies of Washington, DC.
A captain landing in Houston had to be pulled "from the next flight after reporting burning eyes and a 5 to 10 percent loss of vision.
The FAA documented laser strikes hitting pilots in the cockpits of passenger jets of every major airline including American, United, Delta. They've disrupted the postal service, police helicopters and planes – even MedEvac flights.
A paramedic was injured by a laser attack on a medical chopper landing in Dallas.
Officer Shaun McCarthy flies police planes and choppers with a Metro Aviation Unit in Richmond, VA. He's been hit multiple times.
“You're looking out the window, taking pictures helping the ground units and then all of the sudden our vision is gone we can't see anything. We're seeing spots,” McCarthy said.
He was doing traffic control from above a NASCAR race when a blinding green light flashed into the cabin.
The man responsible for pointing a laser at McCarthy during the NASCAR race sent a letter to the government apologizing, according to the FAA. He said he was stuck in the traffic and took out the laser to amuse himself.
"I got out the laser pointer. I was seeing how far it would shine. With no malicious intent, I proceeded to carry it across the sky. I was truly upset that my actions in any way could have harmed the flight crew," the leader read.
Most people aren't trying to bring down a plane, they just don't realize how quickly a toy turns into a dangerous weapon.
The beam in a $40 or $50 laser can reach 10 miles, and the beam gets larger the further it travels.
People on the ground think it's funny their laser can reach 2,000 feet and hit a moving target in the air but they don't genuinely grasp the danger they're putting themselves in and anyone on the ground,” McCarthy said.
The felony charge could result in five years in prison and an $11,000 fine.
"We take it very seriously It's not just a prank, it can be prison time,” said Paul E. Daymond, of the FBI.
The FAA keeps up with reports of laser strikes involving airplanes. We sifted through more than 300 pages of records from the agency from 2010 to 2014.
Here's what we found out:
At Shreveport Regional, there were 11 incidents reported, but airport officials tell us none of them resulted in emergency landings.
East Texas and Texarkana Regional airports reported a combined dozen incidents.
Dallas Love Field and Dallas/Fort Worth International reported more than 300 laser strikes over the same four-year period.
Again, pointing lasers into the sky into an aircraft is a felony. You could face 5 years in prison and an 11 thousand dollar fine. In March, a California man got a 14 year prison sentence.
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