Yet another person in the New York area has been entertaining him- or herself by pointing a green laser at planes. The latest incident occurred Thursday night over Long Island, when four commercial jets were targeted. Even worse, the culprit — whom we’ve dubbed the Green Flash-hole — is still on the loose.
There’s been a veritable epidemic of laser-wielding idiots fucking with pilots in recent years. It’s happening all over the country. This time, said idiot was somewhere near Farmingdale when he or she flashed a laser at four planes in one sitting, between 10 and 11 p.m., and then may have had a second helping at 11:30. Perhaps they’re related. But perhaps not. Because the possibility that there are multiple laser-pointers active at one time is not all that outlandish.
According to data the Federal Aviation Administration supplied to the Village Voice back in March, 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.
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.
Samuel M. Goldwasser, a laser expert and former professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told us in March that the intensity of a laser’s light diminishes the farther it travels, even as its diameter dramatically expands. With common commercially available styles, the beam expands by about a foot for every 1,000 feet in altitude. FAA statistics suggest 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 told us. “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 for 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.
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 allegedly used in the incidents of March of this year, 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.
This is what lasing looks like in action, from inside the cockpit:
Jon Campbell is a staff writer for the Voice, covering criminal justice, legal issues, and the occasional mutant park squirrel.