Imagine piloting an aircraft and then being suddenly blinded by bright light that comes out of nowhere.
"What goes through your mind is 'how am I going to be able to complete this flight safely. How am I going to land when I can’t see?'" said airline captain Robert Hamilton, with the Airline Pilots Association.
The bright light, it turns out is a laser – intentionally aimed at a pilot by someone on the ground. It’s a federal crime that has the potential to cause a plane crash, and federal statistics show a sharp increase in the number of incidents.
Veteran Miami-Dade Police Department pilot Brendan Gill said it happened to him.
“I was flying around and the next thing I know I got a bright flash coming off the left side of the helicopter,” Gill said. “And it was a green laser that was being pointed up at me from a mile and a half away.“
Police said they tracked the laser to a Miami home where they saw Dennys Diaz point the laser at Gill’s helicopter. He was arrested and charged by federal prosecutors. NBC 6 found Mr. Diaz at his home recently but he told us, “I’m sorry but I don’t want to talk about it.”
Diaz avoided jail time by agreeing to continue his education and stay out of any other trouble, but a federal judge in California gave 26-year-old Sergio Rodriguez a 14-year prison sentence for pointing a laser at a police helicopter and interfering with aircraft operations.
“The FBI is taking this crime very seriously,” said FBI agent John Kitzinger. “We don’t want a catastrophe to happen.”
The FBI said that in 2005, lasers were pointed at pilots 384 times. Last year, the number grew to almost 4,000.
In 2014, there have been 63 incidents of lasers and pilots in South Florida. Across the Sunshine State, the number of incidents jumps to 129.
The FBI said pilots often describe it like a camera flash going off in a pitch black car.
“When it’s actually shone at an aircraft the intensity of the laser light and the affect that it has on you in a darker cockpit is actually quite intense,“ Officer Gill stated.
Dr. Andrew Schimel, an Ophthalmologist, who is a professor at FIU’s medical school told NBC 6, “The worst time for the lasers to be shot in the eyes is just as they are landing because they are closer to the laser beam. The closer they are to the laser beam—the more likely they get damage to the retina.”
Schimel warns that more powerful lasers are hitting the market-- primarily from China. He says those lasers are up to 200 times stronger.
“It is a very real safety hazard. And it brings the very real possibility of having an aircraft accident,“ Capt. Hamilton said.
“Lots of times we will get the call from the FLL tower saying that someone is lasering the airliners,” said Sgt. Christine Ponticelli, who runs the aviation division for the Broward Sheriff’s Office.
The perimeter patrols at Ft. Lauderdale airport are on the lookout for someone with a laser. Airport Commander Capt. Roy Liddicott told NBC 6, “All our guys are very aware of this as an absolute problem.”
At night police helicopter pilots wear night vision goggles that brighten everything on the ground, but having them on makes the lasers even more dangerous.
“Because night vision goggles work off of light that’s really going to enhance and intensify the light that’s coming towards them,” Ponticelli said. “If someone was to actually put that laser on them as they were coming on short final it could blind them. The pilot could lose control of the aircraft and crash into the house.”
The FBI told NBC 6 most people think it’s a joke. They just don’t realize the very real danger they are causing.