WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Commercial airliners, private planes, medical and law enforcement helicopters have all been targeted and hit with lasers amid an increase of strikes while flying near Palm Beach International Airport, according to federal data reviewed by Contact 5.
The same data from the Federal Aviation Administration shows 27 incidents through July of this year compared to 18 for all of 2020.
"I think 23 of those 27 events occurred at 3,000 feet or below, and that's obviously when a pilot is at the most critical phase of flight," FAA Southern Region Regional Administrator Michael O'Harra told Contact 5.
According to the FAA, laser strikes on aircraft increased 30 percent in 2020 across Florida despite a drop in flights due to COVID-19.
"We're seeing a concerning increase with laser strikes and specifically in the state of Florida," O'Harra said.
Despite the pandemic and decrease in air traffic, nationwide pilots reported more than 6,800 strikes in 2020, the highest total since 2016.
O'Harra believes the uptick may have to do with the increasing availability of lasers to the general population and people not understanding the hazards involved. It is not a joke or prank, he said.
"If you're thinking about pointing a laser at the sky, just don't do it," he said. "It can be everywhere from painful to distracting."
Contact 5 reached out to the Health Care District of Palm Beach County. It said its Trauma Hawk helicopter pilots rarely encounter a laser while in the air.
On Jan. 1, 2021, a Trauma Hawk pilot detected a laser shining on the helicopter and appropriately notified the air traffic controller so Federal Aviation Administration investigators could work with local law enforcement to pursue those responsible for the act.
It’s a potentially blinding threat that commercial airline pilot J.D. Deboskey has encountered several times. He recounted an incident while flying to Miami International Airport.
"As we took off, we were basically targeted by a laser," he said. "We spent about 30 seconds with the laser drifting around inside the cockpit."
Deboskey said he and his crew tried to take every step to keep the laser from hitting them in their eyes.
"We had to keep our heads down as we were flying in order to make sure the laser didn't impact us," he said. "The danger is, is if the laser gets into your eyes, it can cause either temporary or permanent vision damage."
Deboskey said he thinks there's a need for better enforcement, although admittedly difficult to do.
"The pilots are there for the safety of the passengers and the crew that are on the aircraft, and if you interfere with their ability to see by using a laser, you can have a definite detrimental effect on the safety of that flight," Deboskey said.
People who shine lasers at aircraft can face criminal charges and more than $30,000 in fines.
On Jan. 22, the Manatee County Sheriff responded to a laser being pointed at planes making their approach to land at Sarasota Bradenton Airport.
While the sheriff's aviation unit was attempting to locate the person, he also used the laser on them. The suspect, identified as Charlie Chapman Jr., was located on a forklift at an industrial business and grabbed a hammer as deputies approached him.
Chapman was charged with aggravated assault on an officer, pointing a laser at a pilot without injury and other charges. He had shot his laser pointer on a fixed-wing plane four times and one time at the MCSO helicopter.
One of the pilots of the plane advised that the laser hit him directly in the eyes, causing temporary blindness. The pilot stated his eyesight was blurry from the laser.
Click here to report a laser strike.
If you're a member of the public who witnessed an individual aiming a laser at an aircraft, you can send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
You're asked to include your name and contact information, date and time you witnessed the laser incident and the location and description of the incident.