2020 Was A Banner Year For People Pointing Lasers At Pilots In Airborne Aircrafts

September 1, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

The number of instances of individuals pointing lasers at pilots of aircrafts were at a record high, NBC reported recently. In 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported 6,852 laser attacks, the most for any year since 2016. This is especially significant since air traffic was low last year thanks to disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The most attacks were reported in the states of California, Texas, and Florida and were most likely to occur on Friday or Saturday nights. The motivation for people using handheld lasers to target pilots is unclear and the practice attracts criminal charges and a $11,000 fine. Already, $120,000 worth of fines have been levied in this regard this year alone, the FAA says.

Earlier this month, Roger Floyd Hendricks of Rincon, Georgia, was sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to pointing lasers at airplanes approaching Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport, WTOC reported. This was a result of a Feb. 2020 investigation conducted by the FAA and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). There had been three reported instances of lasers being pointed at pilots landing at the Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport, and in one of them the pilot was able to help pinpoint the location of origin of the laser. In May, Hendricks pled guilty to the laser attack.

“Hendricks needlessly threatened the safety of the passengers and crew of a commercial aircraft. It is important for the public to understand that pointing any laser, even a small one, at an aircraft can obscure the pilot’s view and jeopardize the safe operations of the aircraft,” said Chris Hacker, Special Agent in Charge of FBI Atlanta in a statement. “Hopefully this sentencing will send a message that the FBI will not tolerate those engaging in this dangerous behavior and that they will be aggressively investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Earlier, in January 2020, Charlie Chapman Jr. was arrested for pointing lasers at pilots at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. In this instance, the pilots were flying Cessna Skyhawk planes while practicing takeoffs and landings, the Washington Post reported

Later on the same night, a pilot of a United Airbus A320 reported a laser attack and police dispatched a helicopter to a warehouse yard near the airport. That helicopter pilot was also subjected to a laser attack before Chapman Jr. was apprehended. Chapman Jr. was charged with aggravated assault on an officer, pointing a laser at pilot with and without injury, and resisting arrest without violence.

But what exactly makes lasers so deadly?

“Our nightmare scenario here is getting a pilot – either one or two pilots, however many there are in the cockpit – so flash-blinded that he or she can’t land the airplane, can’t even see to fly it,” ABC’s aviation consultant and airplane pilot John Nance said in 2015. “You wouldn’t think of a little green laser as having the power to bring down an airplane full of people, but if you get the eyes of pilots flash-blinded at the wrong moment, you can do that – and you could end up killing 400 people.”

This year has been a particularly challenging one for professionals working in the aviation sector and the threats have not all been external.

So far in 2021, the FAA has recorded 3,900 incidents of unruly passenger behaviour, a massive leap from the 150 to 200 cases reported in an average year. This included 2,867 cases involving refusals to comply with the federal mask mandate on planes, NBC News reported. The 34 most serious cases are facing more than $500,000 in fines, taking the 2021 tally of fines handed out past the $1 million mark.

Aviation psychologist Erin Bowen said that the increase in incidences of unruly behaviour could be traced to the Covid-19 situation, which clearly made airport experiences and flying stressful.

“Before you step on the plan you have people who are already anxious,” Bowen told the Dallas Morning News. “You’ve got all these factors coming together, including the airport experience, which is designed to dehumanize and augment stress.”