Laser pointers have been commercially available since the 1980s and are seen everywhere from boardrooms, classrooms, in tools, cat and dog toys and even in gas stations as novelties. So why would the FBI offer a $10,000 reward to anyone that helps them to apprehend and convict someone pointing one of these seemingly harmless devices at an aircraft?
Most laser pointers available to the public are pretty harmless if used as they are intended to be and care is made not to shine them in someone’s eyes from close up. However, the danger to aircraft operations comes from the strong concentrated light they emit, the spread of this light at distances and the potential to distract, startle, cause flash blindness and the concern of injury (but at distances the risk of injury is low, at least from the laser beam). Currently there are no commercially available lasers that can physically damage an aircraft and it is unknown and doubtful that there are military lasers that could.
When using a laser outside at night it appears the beam ends at a relatively short distance from the user but that is incorrect and the beam spreads at longer distance like an ordinary flash light. At one half of a mile the beam from a handheld laser spreads to approximately the size of a doorway. When the beam spreads it has the potential to reflect from aircraft windscreens similar to when you are driving at night and an oncoming car does not dim their lights. Aircraft cockpits are kept in low light and the brightness of a laser beam can temporarily blind the crew, not a good thing when flying straight and level but extremely dangerous during the takeoff or landing phase of flight.
Lasers used in laser shows are 6 watts and green in color (green is the preferred color since that color can be seen more easily by the human eye than other colors and are less expensive to manufacture). Even though the light spreads at distances a laser show style laser can reach over 368,000 feet (70 miles) and at that distance the main danger is distraction. At lesser distances the dangers increase, eye hazard at 1,700 feet, flash blindness at 8,700 feet (1.5 miles) and glare at 36,800 feet (7 miles).
Commercial hand held lasers are usually about 5 mW and green in color but even at this lower wattage eye hazard could occur at 52 feet, flash blindness up to 262 feet, glare up to 1,171 feet and distraction up to 11,712 feet.
As mentioned above, this issue is being taken seriously as incidents continue to increase. In 2013 there were 3,960 (average 11 per day) reported instances in the US (up from 1,416 in 2009) and over 4,266 (average 12 per day) in Europe. If you are caught and convicted you could face fines and possibly jail time. A man in California was sentenced to 30 months in jail for pointing a laser at an aircraft and just last week another California man was sentenced to 14 years in prison for pointing a laser at a police helicopter. The second man’s girlfriend was also involved in the incident and is facing a $250,000 fine and 5 years in prision.