TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Data from the Federal Aviation Administration shows there’s been an increase in the number of people shining lasers at aircraft. Historically, Florida ranks among the worst places for laser strikes.
In the Tampa Bay area alone, there have been 56 laser strikes so far this year, data shows. That’s an average of one incident every five days in 2021.
Commercial planes and private aircraft, as well as medical and law enforcement helicopters, have all been a target of blinding green light, authorities say.
Last month, the Tampa Police Department released video and mugshots of accused suspects after back-to-back laser strikes one weekend.
“People need to understand this is not some joke,” said Chris Shepherd.
Shepherd is the chief pilot of the Tampa Police Department’s Aviation Unit.
“When they strike the aircraft with the green laser, it hits the plexiglass on the windshield, it illuminates the entire cockpit,” Shepherd explained. “It’s that glare that you can’t see where you’re going.”
High-powered lasers can temporarily blind pilots, threatening everyone on board in the air – and in communities below.
But it’s not just a dangerous distraction. Shepherd says laser strikes lead to delays and diversions.
“Once the lasing is identified by the tower, they divert the traffic so that no one else is struck by it,” he said.
FAA data from the past 10 years shows laser strikes dramatically spiked in 2015.
Typically, incidents increase in the fall and winter months. According to the data from 2010 to 2020, the greatest number of strikes happen on Saturdays. Often, strikes occur at lower altitudes – close to take-off and landing.
Shepherd showed 8 On Your Side the high-definition cameras mounted on his aircraft. Even in darkness, the lens can spot movement and heat from above.
“We’re going to get you. If you lase an aircraft and we’re in the air, we’re going to catch you,” Shepherd said. “It’s considered a felony in Florida and that could be up to five years in jail.”
On top of the criminal penalty, you’ll take a financial hit as well. If you shine a laser at an aircraft, the FAA can fine you up to $11,000 per violation and up to $30,800 for multiple laser incidents.
According to new FAA data, so far this year, there have been 7,186 laser strikes across the country.
There were a total of 6,852 laser incidents in the U.S. in 2020. In 2019, a total of 6,136 strikes were reported. The year before that, the number was 5,663.
Florida is the third worst state for laser strikes on aircraft, the data shows.