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Laser strikes on aircraft around US airports continue to climb

McCarran International Airport (Tomás Del Coro/WikiCommons)

The United Airlines 737 was 1,000 feet over Newark this past October when the cockpit was flooded with an otherworldly green light.

The passenger jet was being hit by a laser.

There were no injuries to anyone on board, or damage to the aircraft, but the Federal Aviation Administration said pilots across the country reported 9,723 laser strikes last year, a 41% increase over 2020.

Most were in the skies over California, with 1,502 reports. But New Jersey had 41 such incidents, FAA data shows — 22 of them involving flights in and out of Newark Liberty International Airport.

In 2015, 11 commercial airline flights and one military jet were hit by laser beams over Newark Liberty over a period of just a few hours one evening. One pilot told air traffic control, “Just for your information, there’s someone shooting a laser about four or five miles back off our back wing. They lit us up pretty well.”

Since 2010, pilots flying over New Jersey have reported 1,011 laser strikes, which FAA Administrator Steve Dickson called “a serious threat to the safety of the pilot, the passengers and everyone in the vicinity of the aircraft.”

According to the FAA, many types of high-powered lasers can incapacitate pilots, citing 244 injuries since the agency began recording data on laser strikes in 2010.

Earlier this year, the pilot of a regional jet reported a laser strike as he was making a left turn and descending to 12,000 feet for an approach to an unnamed airport.

“The light seemed to flicker, then remain steady, as if someone was directly targeting us and was getting a ‘lock’ on the aircraft. This continued for what seemed about 10 seconds,” he recounted to a NASA aviation incident reporting system. “The laser extinguished, but about 5 seconds later ‘reacquired’ and shone for another 5 seconds. At that point the windshield outer layer cracked, and the light stopped.”

Those who shine lasers at aircraft face FAA fines of up to $11,000 per violation and up to $30,800 for multiple laser incidents. The FAA issued $120,000 in fines for laser strikes in last year. It is also a federal crime to target aircraft with laser pointers.

The number of laser strikes in New Jersey actually fell in 2021 from the previous year aircraft targeted in New Jersey, from 58 to 41, the FAA data showed. But those incidents included big commercial airliners, military cargo planes, corporate jets flying into Teterboro, and small single-engine Cessnas, at altitudes ranging from hundreds to thousands of feet.


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