Area Man's Arrest Illuminates America's Dumbest Pastime: Shining Lasers at Planes

Update, 3/17/15 5:21 p.m. Elehecer Balaguer was charged in federal court today with one count of aiming a laser at an aircraft. A press release from the office of Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, said Balaguer surrendered to FBI agents Monday morning, and on Tuesday, he reportedly told a judge that he has struggled with addiction and mental health problems, including bipolar disorder, for years. He faces a sentence of up to five years in prison if convicted.

Update, 3/14/15 1:09 p.m. The full-grown man who pointed a laser at several aircraft earlier this week may not be Frank Egan after all. At a scheduled court appearance for Egan on Friday, his roommate, fellow area man Elehecer Balaguer, reportedly came forward and confessed that it was he who had purchased the laser pointer in Florida, brought it back to New York City, and engaged in the pastime known as lasing. According to the Wall Street Journal, Balaguer will turn himself in to the FBI on Monday. Meantime, Egan is free on bail. Balaguer is a full-grown man of 54, BTW.

Original story follows:

When the NYPD arrested a full-grown man in the Bronx for shining a laser pointer at several aircraft bound for LaGuardia — and, for good measure, at a police helicopter — earlier this week, you probably thought: What a moron!

It might not have crossed your mind that Schuylerville resident Frank Egan's alleged prank is only the tip of the laser pointer, as it were.

Egan may or may not be an idiot, but if he did what officials say he did, he is definitely not alone. According to data the Federal Aviation Administration supplied to the Village Voice, over the past five years the agency has logged nearly 17,700 incidents in which someone aimed a laser pointer at an aircraft in flight. In 2014 the FAA tallied 3,894 incidents involving lasers and planes.

What's more, the number of incidents increased fourteenfold between 2005 and 2013, according to the FAA.

Area Man's Arrest Illuminates America's Dumbest Pastime: Shining Lasers at Planes
via FAA

Last year saw at least 100 laser incidents at airports in the New York metropolitan area, plus four so far this year. That's not including Egan's alleged contribution, which reportedly involved two commercial airliners, one small plane, and the NYPD helicopter whose occupants were intent upon ferreting him out.

The 2014 NYC-area tally of "lasings" — yes, the activity has a name — according to the FAA: 41 incidents at LaGuardia Airport; 30 incidents at Newark Liberty International; 19 incidents at JFK; 5 incidents at Teterboro Airport; 4 incidents at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Islip; and 3 incidents at Westchester County Airport outside White Plains.

The chart below shows the totals at those same airports over the past five years:

Area Man's Arrest Illuminates America's Dumbest Pastime: Shining Lasers at Planes

While it may seem like a harmless prank committed by people in desperate need of a more productive pastime, authorities say the lasers look a lot different from the air than on the ground. The farther a laser's beam travels from its source, the larger it becomes, and by the time it reaches a plane several thousand feet up, what began as a pinprick can end up more like a floodlight. When a darkened cockpit is suddenly illuminated, its occupants may temporarily lose night vision, which is probably not a good thing.

Click the chart to see a larger version in a new window
Click the chart to see a larger version in a new window

Samuel M. Goldwasser, a laser expert and former professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says the intensity of a laser's light diminishes the farther it travels, even as its diameter dramatically expands. With common commercially available styles like the one Egan allegedly used, the beam expands by about a foot for every 1,000 feet. FAA statistics indicate that a typical strike occurs at about 5,000 feet, meaning that by the time the laser reaches an aircraft, while the light isn't very intense, it can cover quite a wide area.

"The average person doesn't realize what they're doing," Goldwasser says. "They don't realize that this little, itty-bitty thing can be so disruptive at a mile away."

The problem has gotten bad enough over the past decade that in 2012 federal lawmakers felt compelled to pass a law imposing prison sentences of up to five years on laser-wielding plane-pointers.

In March 2014 a California man was sentenced to fourteen years for "interfering with an aircraft" — which falls under a different federal statute — after he "lased" a police helicopter hovering over the city of Clovis.

Closer to home last year, the FBI charged 40-year-old Phillip Putter of Westchester County in a 2013 incident in which he allegedly lased a police helicopter patrolling the Kensico Dam Fireworks Independence Day celebration. (The government pledged to dismiss its complaint — and the attendant five-year sentence — if Putter abided by the conditions of a deferred-prosecution agreement for six months.)

Angel Rivas, 33, has the apparent distinction of being the first New York City–area resident charged under the 2012 statute.

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Rivas reportedly lased a commercial airliner in the wee hours of August 21, 2012 — and then, when a police helicopter came to investigate, went ahead and lased the copter, too.

In February of 2014, the FBI announced a program that includes a $10,000 reward for anyone who comes forward with information regarding a laser-pointer-pointer.

According to data the FAA supplied, green is overwhelmingly the color of choice in the lasing community — 94 percent of all incidents reported involved green lasers.

Goldwasser says that may not be a coincidence. The technical challenges of constructing a green laser are considerable compared to their red cousins, the professor explains. While a red laser involves essentially a single microchip, producing a green beam requires converting light from the original microchip into an infrared wavelength and then back into visible light. The inside of a green laser, says Goldwasser, is a mess of "crystals, mirrors, and diodes — all kinds of stuff."

That complexity makes the cheaper models hard to manufacture reliably, so some companies seem to have compensated for poor quality control by simply dialing up the power. (No one wants a "wimpy" laser, Goldwasser says.) The result is inexpensive pointers that are far more powerful than they need to be. The laser Egan allegedly used, for example, packs about 200 milliwatts, far above the legal limit of 5 milliwatts. Goldwasser, who has testified as a defense witness in some lasing prosecutions, says the lasers on the market frequently are far more powerful than they're advertised to be.

Goldwasser says the most recent incident may have been exaggerated a bit in the press; while pilots were treated for injuries, he said it's not possible that there would have been actual, permanent eye damage from a laser so far away. While pilots may lose night vision, and might suffer an afterimage (either of which, obviously, can be dangerous when one is piloting a plane), he says "it shouldn't be implied that it [such eye damage] is permanent."

We found no evidence of serious injury to pilots or passengers attributable to lasing.

This is what lasing looks like in action, from inside the cockpit:

As for Egan, the 36-year-old was at home with his mother in Schuylerville when police came knocking, according to a story in the New York Daily News.

The elder Egan let the officers in, and they observantly spotted Frank's laser pointer on a dresser.

Egan later told reporters he's innocent. He has been charged with two counts of assaulting a police officer, three counts of felony assault, three counts of reckless endangerment, and three weapons-possession charges related to the laser.

Click the image below to download a spreadsheet with the FAA's most recent list of lasing incidents.

[news@villagevoice.com]


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