CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - It comes in the form of a burst of blinding light from below. For pilots, laser strikes are more than a distraction. They're dangerous, and even blinding.
A Virginia Police Department pilot experienced it first hand. He said, "Oh, it could have been deadly! The closest thing I can compare it to is looking into the sun."
For as little as $10 you can buy a laser online and shoot a light 10 miles into the sky.
In Cleveland and around the nation, laser strikes are on the rise. Over the last seven years, we've seen a gradual increase in reports from pilots, averaging around 3,700 incidents a year. But last year, laser attacks nearly doubled to a record 7,700 strikes.
Investigators from Raycom Media, the parent company of Cleveland 19 News, went to the FAA for more details. Through an open records request, they received dozens of documents, some containing actual descriptions from pilots taking off and landing at major airports across the country.
Chief Investigator Carl Monday was able to document lasers hitting pilots in the cockpits of passenger jets with every major airline including American, United, and Delta.
They've disrupted the Postal Service, police helicopters and planes. In Houston, a pilot had to be pulled from his next flight, after reporting burning eyes and loss of vision after a laser strike. During a landing in Dallas, a paramedic was injured by a laser attack on a medical chopper. In Florida, a pilot was able to catch the culprit with equipment on his aircraft and directed officers on the ground to make an arrest.
Seven years ago, Justin DeWalt of Brook Park was caught shining a laser at four different planes near Hopkins airport. It cost him two years in prison. But most cases are never solved.
Over a four year period in 2014, Monday found 100 laser incidents involving Hopkins. In just one day last December, 25 separate aircraft were targeted by lasers in Cleveland. No one's been arrested.
So far, there are no reports of planes downed by a laser attack. But Cleveland cargo pilot Rusty Bliss and other pilots warn it's just a matter of time.
"The flash blindness could lead to a snowball effect, if you're missing things in the cockpit or missing things outside the cockpit, if your're a passenger airline, you got several hundred passengers behind you so those lives are at stake," Capt. Bliss said. "I don't think they're intentionally trying to get us in the cockpit, I think they're just trying to be smart and wiseguys and shine their new super cool toy and shine it on the side of an airplane."
Some may consider it a joke, but Paul Dramond, spokesperson for the FBI, said "We take it very seriously. It's not just a prank. It could be prison time."
If caught, pointing a laser at an aircraft can land you in jail for up to five years, and up to an $11,000 fine.
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