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Lasers a rising danger for pilots flying in Fort Wayne

Reports of pointers aimed at planes are up

– They can flood an airplane's cockpit with so much light that it can severely impair a pilot's vision.

Federal aviation officials call them highly dangerous, and it's illegal to point them at airplanes.

Still, that hasn't kept people from doing so.

It's gotten so bad across the country that aviation officials created a website designed strictly for pilots, giving tips on how to deal with them. The FBI has created a task force to investigate them.

And they've been spotted in Fort Wayne.

Two pilots landing planes at Fort Wayne International Airport reported that a green laser was aimed at their aircrafts Wednesday.

A Fort Wayne police officer later reported seeing another green beam, presumably from the same laser, pointed at a third plane.

"Reports of them are increasing, which is disappointing," said Scott Hinderman, executive director of airports for the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority.

Typically, officials receive an average of two or three reports of lasers being pointed at planes per year, Hinderman said.

But the Federal Aviation Administration and the FBI released numbers this year that showed such reports were up 1,100 percent from 2005.

Officials are projecting 3,700 such reports for this year alone, compared with just 283 they received in 2005, according to the FBI.

"I had temporary blindness," Capt. Robert Hamilton said in an FBI media release this year. Hamilton, of the Air Line Pilots Association International, was landing a plane when he was struck by a laser light.

"My eyes were burning. It caused disorientation, and it was distracting," he said in the FBI's release.

Fort Wayne police were called about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday on reports of an "intense" laser being pointed at planes coming into Fort Wayne.

The first pilot to report the laser to the air traffic control tower said the green laser was large and concentrated on his aircraft for a prolonged period of time.

He said the laser came from an area about 2 miles northeast of the airport. As an officer drove to the area of Dunkelberg and Kinnerk roads looking for the laser, another pilot on another plane reported seeing a green laser pointed at his plane.

The officer parked his squad car in the 8000 block of Winchester Road and watched another aircraft come in for a landing.

He saw a green laser beam, seemingly originating from the 8000 block of Kinnerk, pointed at that plane for about five seconds. The officer saw nothing when he drove to that area.

He stayed to watch another plane come in for a landing, but this time, no green laser beam made an appearance.

Hinderman said he didn't know why people point lasers at planes.

"I don't know if people are just bored or if they're trying out a new toy or what," he said. "Why do people throw snowballs?"

Pointing a laser at an airplane, though, can be prosecuted under two federal statutes, according to the FBI.

Merely pointing a laser at an aircraft can be punishable by up to five years in prison with a fine of up to $11,000 per violation.

Prosecutors can also charge someone with interfering with the operation of an aircraft, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years and a $250,000 fine, according to the FBI.

And some judges and law enforcement officials across the country are beginning to send strong messages to those who may be thinking about trying out their new toys.

A U.S. District Court judge in California this year sentenced one man to 30 months in federal prison for shining a laser pointer at a plane and a police helicopter.

In Oregon in October, Portland police and FBI agents descended upon a 39-year-old security guard's home after they accused him of using a laser on planes multiple times.

Investigators in that case used aircraft belly cameras and infrared cameras to take video of the man using the laser and to see his movements within his own home, according to news reports.

The man later admitted to pointing a green laser light at planes at least 25 times and did so "for excitement, for thrills," according to the news station.

Florida officials said that between Nov. 29 and Dec. 9, pilots landing planes in West Palm Beach reported seeing green lasers three times.

As for the green lasers pointed at planes in Fort Wayne, officials with the FAA have been notified, and the case is being investigated.

jeffwiehe@jg.net

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