FAA: Iowa laser pointers targeted aircraft in flight 271 times

By: - September 1, 2021 4:18 pm

The FAA and FBI are going after people who point lasers at aircraft. (Image by StockSnap from Pixabay)

People in Iowa pointed lasers at aircraft in flight 271 times from 2010-20, breaking federal law, records show. 

Only 12 states had a lower number. 

That placed Iowans among the least-guilty of an offense that can mean a $11,000 fine per incident, and a $30,800 civil fine if you make a habit out of risking pilots’ eyesight, the Federal Aviation Administration said in a new report.

The act also can land offenders in prison for five years under a federal law passed in 2018. The FBI offers up to $10,000 for information leading to an arrest. FAA is encouraging people to report offenses.

Incidents grew during pandemic

The number of offenses nationwide grew in 2020 even as many people were grounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of flights that came with it, according to the report.

Between 2010 and 2020, the United States and its territories had 57,835 incidents of lasers pointed at planes.

“Many high-powered lasers have the ability to incapacitate pilots, thus threatening the safety of everyone on board and within the vicinity of the aircraft,” FAA said in its new report.

The agency used a new software program to track laser incidents. Iowa ranked 40th in laser incidents per capita. 

Every Midwestern state but Wisconsin had more incidents than Iowa on that basis. 

California led nation in lasers pointed at planes

California had the most incidents with 11,198. That was the nearly double second-place Texas’ 5,802. Hawaii ranked first in the per-capita ratings.

Nationally, laser-pointing incidents involving aircraft over the past decade hit a high 7,383 in 2016, then dropped to 5,663 before rising to 6,852 in 2020, FAA reported. 

In raw numbers, Saturdays saw the most lasers pointed at planes. Fridays were second. 

Although it didn’t address pilots or flights, the Iowa Legislation addressed assaults using lasers in its “Back the Blue Act,” Senate File 342. The law made it a serious misdemeanor to point lasers at various public safety officials. The offense is an aggravated misdemeanor if an officer, firefighter or other official is injured, and a felony if weapons are involved.

DSM airport director: Lasers can end careers

Kevin Foley, executive director at Des Moines International Airport and a former pilot, said he doesn’t keep statistics on laser pointing involving flights that took off or landed in Des Moines. “I turn that over to the federal government,” and the FBI investigates, Foley said. 

Kevin Foley is the executive director and general manager of Des Moines International Airport. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines International Airport)

It’s unclear whether the offenders are pulling a prank, committing a terrorist act, or behaving that way for another reason, Foley said. What is clear is that a pilot’s career could be over if the light permanently damages an eye, he added. 

Passengers also are at risk, even with today’s automation, if a pilot doesn’t have full sight after an incident, Foley said. 

“It’s a safety issue. And more importantly, if it permanently damages (the pilots’) eyes, their career could be done,” he added. 

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.