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Why It’s a Terrible Idea to Point Lasers at Airplanes

Lasers and airplanes
A "lasing" simulation performed by the FBI. FBI

The FBI wants you to turn in people who engage in “lasing,” which is apparently what some people call pointing a laser at an airplane.

It’s offering a healthy reward: $10,000. Those convicted of this federal crime face up to 20 years in jail. Endangering an aircraft with a simple office tool may sound like urban legend, but this increasingly common "prank" can distract a pilot or impair vision during critical flight operations. How can a laser pointer on the ground cause so much trouble hundreds of feet in the air? Physics.

A laser pointer's tiny pinpoint of light spreads out as it travels. Think of how the beam from a flashlight starts small and then expands to illuminate an entire wall. Now think of a deer caught in headlights.

“A laser at an altitude is different than a laser close-up,” Patrick Murphy, executive director of the International Laser Display Association, told NBC News. “To the pilot, it becomes a big blob of light that spreads out, and they can’t see past it.”

There were 3,960 laser strikes reported last year, according to the FBI, an average of 11 incidents a day.

In the sky, the biggest problem isn’t so much the risk of retinal damage, but of a pilot being distracted during the landing, one of the most hectic periods of a flight, Sean Cassidy, first vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association, told NBC News.

The stronger the laser — especially green ones, which can appear 35 times brighter than a red laser of similar power output — the bigger the danger. While there have been no reported accidents as a result of "lasing," pilots and the FBI remain concerned that it's a major problem.

“If you were driving a car down a dark road and someone shines a spotlight in your face, your eyes might not be permanently damaged, but you would be seeing spots and it would certainly make it hard to drive the car safely,” he said. "Now just imagine that in an airplane."