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Record number of 'dangerous' laser strikes reported by pilots in 2021

FAA: 2021 incidents up 41% from year before

More pilots then ever before reported being hit by high-powered lasers in 2021, potentially incapacitating them, according to data published Friday by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA said that they received 9,723 reports of "dangerous laser strikes" from pilots last year, an increase of 41 percent from a year earlier.

There were 66 reported incident in the skies above Tucson in 2021, affecting aircraft taking off and landing at Tucson International Airport, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, and Ryan Field.

Across Arizona, 334 incidents were reported in 2021, including 235 in Phoenix, while others were reported in Yuma, Scottsdale, Mesa and elsewhere.

Since the FAA began tracking laser strikes in 2010, there have been 67,558 reported incidents, and the most in a single month occurred in November 2021 when pilots reported more than 1,000 incidents, the agency said. The FAA added that since they began tracking these incidents at least 244 pilots have reported injuries, including 47 pilots who reported they were injured by laser light in 2021.

Arizona has been among the top five states for these incidents, with 3,332 incidents since reporting began.

California has led the U.S. with nearly 12,800 incidents since 2010, followed by Texas, which had 6,823 incidents, and Florida, which had 5,048 incidents. However, per capita, Hawaii had the most incidents with 74.6, followed by Washington D.C. and Nevada. Arizona had nearly 45 incidents per 100,000 people.

California had 1,557 reports in 2021, with Texas having 1,030 reports.

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"Shining a laser at an aircraft is a serious safety threat. Many types of high-powered lasers can incapacitate pilots, many of whom are flying airplanes with hundreds of passengers," the FAA said.

Last May, the Airline Pilots Association called hand-held lasers "a serious threat to aviation safety," warning that while shining a laser on an aircraft "may seem small and faint from the ground, it’s very different in the air." The group noted that the effect is especially a problem when pilots are flying in "low-light conditions for maximum visibility at night," and that a laser shone into the cockpit "manifests as a blinding light to those flying an aircraft." 

In some cases pilots may face a condition known as a "welder's flash" that does not include long-term damage, but a laser shining into a cockpit can result in the loss of a pilot's night vision, often at what the APA called the "critical phases" of flight, including takeoff and landing.

New South Wales, Australiam banned laser pointers except by special permit in 2008, and the United Kingdom limited the sale of higher-powered laser pointers in 1997. However, the U.S. has largely balked at such bans in part because the lasers capable of striking aircraft include laser pointers, levels and gun sights.

People who shine lasers at aircraft face fines of up to $11,000 per violation, and up to $30,800 for multiple laser incidents, the FAA said. In 2021 alone, the FAA fined people $120,000. People who shine lasers at airplanes can also face criminal penalties from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, the FAA said.

In 2014, the FBI launched a new program aimed at deterring laser strikes, creating a regional reward program that ran for two months, offering up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of someone who aimed a laser at an aircraft.

"The FAA continues to educate the public about the hazards of laser strikes because they pose such a serious threat to the safety of the pilot, the passengers and everyone in the vicinity of the aircraft," said FAA Administrator Steve Dickson.

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An illustration of laser-light hitting a cockpit.

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