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Laser Pointer ‘Pranks’ Could Result In Catastrophe

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BALTIMORE (WJZ) — A frightening trend is growing across the nation and in Maryland from something anyone can buy at an office supply store or online.

Vic Carter investigates laser danger.

More and more people are targeting airplanes and helicopters with laser pointers.  It’s definitely not a prank and could result in catastrophe.

Southwest Airlines Flight 512 was on its final approach to BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.  It was flying low over Millersville and more than 130 people were on board.  It’s the most critical time of the flight, landing a 50-ton jet.  Suddenly, a flash from the ground blinded the pilots for a few precious seconds.  Someone from the ground targeted the cockpit with a green laser, burning the pilots’ eyes.  They landed safely but this could have been catastrophic.  The pilots were rushed to the hospital with eye injuries.

WJZ obtained the air traffic control recording from this night, showing just how dangerous this growing trend can be.  Our investigation reveals the number of airplanes and helicopters targeted by lasers doubled in the past year to 2,800—the highest level ever.

It happened to a Medevac chopper.

“I picked up a bright flash coming from about the 2:00 position,” said Marcus Alberghini, Medevac pilot.  “I said, `I think it’s a laser pointed at this aircraft.’”

One of Maryland’s Medevac choppers was targeted over Sykesville, just after dropping off a patient. 

“When it hit, this entire cockpit was lit up,” Alberghini said.  “The cockpit is very dark and that amount of focused light energy in here, it just expands tremendously.  It can cause flash blindness, it can cause dazzle effect.”

Fortunately, Alberghini and flight paramedic Gregg Lantz were able to control the chopper and pinpoint the laser on the ground.  The person shining it was arrested and charged.

“We could have lost the whole aircraft if it had been a different situation, or had damage to our eyes, damage to our equipment,” Lantz said.

A number of problems are associated with laser pointers.  Number one, they’re plentiful.  You can find them just about anywhere.  Secondly, they’re inexpensive; Vic Carter bought one for about $10.  Also, they’re powerful.  Some have a range as far as two miles.  Our camera on the roof of a building a mile away had no problem picking up the beam of the laser.  An airplane on final approach flies at just a few thousand feet.  It’s frightening how easy a target it could be.

“I don’t think there’s any understanding the damage it can do,” said aviation consultant Peter Goelz.

Goelz is the former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board. 

“It’s mind-boggling that someone would think that that’s not dangerous,” Goelz said.  “There needs to be greater understanding that these are not toys and that people can get hurt by them.  It’s not a prank.”

In fact, both houses of Congress have recently passed legislation to make laser strikes on airplanes or helicopters a federal crime.

“We could have hit something or we could have had a catastrophic accident,” Alberghini said.  “You could wind up taking out an aircraft and all the passengers on board.”

The FBI is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the person who targeted the Southwest Airlines plane over BWI.

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