The FAA says it's happening more now than ever before: People aiming lasers at planes and helicopters.
Pilots tell NBC 7 Investigates the impact of a blinding or disorienting laser beam that can spell disaster for both people on a plane and those on the ground below.
NBC 7 Investigates uncovered it’s happening disproportionately more often in San Diego.
Last month, the FAA reported a 41% hike in pilots who say lasers were aimed at aircraft. That spike was far more pronounced in San Diego.
In fact, the San Diego area accounts for about a third of all aircraft laser reports in the state of California. In 2021, laser aircraft strikes jumped locally by nearly 300%.
A pilot instructor told NBC 7 Investigates while the lasers don’t mess with the equipment, the impact of disorienting or potentially blinding pilots, even for a brief period of time, can cause a crash -- especially because these tend to happen during an already tricky flight time for pilots: landing at night.
That potential to crash is precisely why FBI San Diego Field Office Special Agent William McNamara says the agency goes after these cases so hard.
“These are priorities for the FBI," says McNamara. "This can have a devastating impact, obviously to disable a pilot’s vision, even for a short period of time, could have catastrophic consequences. It’s a danger to the aircraft, passengers, crew and to the people on the ground. The FBI takes these incidents very seriously.”
One other thing to note, special agent McNamara says pointing any laser, no matter how small in size or weak, is a federal crime. One that if convicted, could land you in federal prison for up to 5 years.
If you’re on the ground and you see someone pointing a laser at aircraft, talking about it, or posting about it online, special agent McNamara urges you to report them to the FBI by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI or visiting tips.fbi.gov.