Danger in the air: Increase in laser strikes concerns pilots

Incidents increased nationwide by 41% in 2021
Atlanta police Officers Eric Lightkep (left) and William Treadwell were tagged with a laser recently while working crowd control in their helicopter.

Credit: Ben Gray

Combined ShapeCaption
Atlanta police Officers Eric Lightkep (left) and William Treadwell were tagged with a laser recently while working crowd control in their helicopter.

Credit: Ben Gray

Atlanta police Officers William Treadwell and Eric Lightkep were on a routine patrol providing air support to other officers dealing with crowd control on the night of June 12 when their helicopter started to get hit by a laser.

Treadwell quickly got on the radio and told officers on the ground where the man pointing the laser was so he could be arrested. Jamal Brad, 31, was charged with illegally pointing a firearm and laser toward the police helicopter.

For the pilots and crew on an aircraft, being hit with a laser can be extremely dangerous.

“If it hits you in the face, you have to immediately avert your eyes, even for a few seconds. When it hits our windscreen on the front of the helicopter, it glows everything inside of the cockpit green so it makes it harder to see your instruments,” Treadwell said. “In the case of an emergency, it can make all the difference.”

Officers in APD’s Air Unit Phoenix 1 are trained to deal with laser strikes mainly because they do occur from time to time, especially when there is a big protest or congregation of people in an area. Lightkep, the pilot that night, said this particular case was peculiar because Brad was persistent.

“You immediately notice it. You can’t miss it once it makes contact with your eye. It’s extremely distracting and you can’t look in that direction. It pretty much blinds that whole side where the laser is coming from; you have to avoid that whole area,” Lightkep said. “This guy, for 10 minutes, every time we came around, he kept hitting us.”

Air Unit Sgt. Keely Miller said it’s always concerning to hear about lasers hitting officers while in the air, but acknowledged they are not the only ones that get hit. EMS helicopters, news helicopters and airplanes get hit with lasers as well.

Days before Lightkep and Treadwell were struck, Gwinnett County police were hit with a laser while doing a SWAT team exercise at their training center.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which keeps track of laser strikes nationwide, is concerned about an increase in 2021 that is expected to continue this year. Nationwide, there was a 41% increase in laser strikes in 2021, and they are up 5% from this point last year.

Michael O’Harra, regional administrator for the FAA’s Southern Region, said it’s hard to determine why the strikes are going up, but the easy access to lasers or the fact people don’t know how dangerous it is could be contributing factors.

“We are doing everything we can to raise public awareness of the aviation safety threat and we hope, as the public hears more about this, that would deter future laser events,” O’Harra said. “When people point a laser at an aircraft, it can create anything from temporary blindness, to distraction, or incapacitate the pilot that needs to be focused on the safety of flight.”

In Georgia, laser strikes have been increasing for the past three years, with 299 reported in 2021, up 143% from 2020. As of May 31, there have been 130 reported in Georgia, up from 113 at this point last year.

Based on FAA data, most of the strikes reported in Georgia occurred in Hampton, about 30 miles south of Atlanta in Henry County. O’Harra said the reason the numbers in Hampton are so high (219 in 2021) is because there is an air traffic control center facility there that manages traffic for Georgia and adjacent states, so pilots report strikes to that facility from across the state.

“They are, more than likely, in the Atlanta area or in the airspace around here,” O’Harra said. “We are concerned, not only for the passengers aboard these aircrafts but the people who may be on the ground underneath these aircrafts.”

Anyone caught pointing a laser at an aircraft can face local, state and even federal charges. O’Harra said they can also face fines of $11,000 per violation, up to $30,800 for multiple events.

“It is a federal offense to aim a laser at an aircraft. The FAA works closely with our federal, state and local law enforcement agencies‚” O’Harra said. “We pursue civil and criminal penalties against these people who would purposely aim a laser at an aircraft.”

To report any laser strikes to the FAA, email laserreports@faa.gov.

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