Portland, Ore. — Alaska Airlines flight 2019 had just lifted off the runway at Portland International Airport when the cabin windows lit up in a green glow. The plane had been hit by a laser-pointer.
“All of a sudden there was a bright green light,” said passenger Scott Burton of Portland. “It was kind of waving in the sky. Clearly trying to target the airplane.”
The August 4 incident was the second time this flight from Portland to Redmond/Bend had been hit by a laser-pointer. On July 2, the flight crew aboard Alaska flight 2019 reported seeing a laser on departure, according to the airline.
A KGW investigation found these recent incidents involving laser-pointers are part dangerous trend. Across the country, the number of laser strikes on aircraft has nearly doubled in the past year.
“I would caution people that this is not a prank,” said Beth Anne Steele, FBI spokesperson for Portland office. “This is something that could have deadly consequences.”
KGW obtained Federal Aviation Administration records for laser strike incidents through a Freedom of Information Act request.
In 2015, FAA records show 7,346 reported laser strikes on commercial aircraft, private planes and helicopters in the U.S. In 2014, there were 3,894 incidents.
Last year, the most laser incidents occurred near Los Angeles International Airport with 243 reported strikes. Phoenix had 229 incidents, Las Vegas reported 167, Chicago O’Hare saw 131, San Diego had 121, George Bush in Houston reported 119 and Denver International Airport saw 114 incidents.
PDX had 109 laser incidents in 2015, up from 74 reported cases in 2014.
“It’s disorienting. It’s pretty intense,” said private pilot Greg Hughes, whose cockpit has been struck by a laser twice in recent years. “It hit the windows and the windscreen and the canopy and really lit the whole place up.”
Hughes said the bright green glow from a laser pointer can destroy a pilot’s night vision, making it difficult to read instruments. Pilots can also be temporarily blinded by the bright light of a laser.
The FAA records show most laser strikes occur early in the morning, just before sunrise. The average altitude of a laser incident is 6,500 feet, as pilots are taking off or landing.
“That’s such a critical portion of the flight,” said retired commercial pilot Jim Hummel. “You’re running the before-landing checklist, during which time you are configuring the plane for landing.”
The FBI and local police have tried to crack down on laser-pointer incidents with public awareness campaigns and criminal prosecutions. Under federal law, aiming a laser at an aircraft is punishable by up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
“It’s not something you can do and think you are going to get away with,” said Steele of the FBI.
Police crack down on Portland laser strikes
In March 2015, a 47-year-old man was sentenced to six months in federal prison for aiming a laser at commercial jetliners as they approached PDX.
Stephen Bukucs of Portland confessed he targeted planes for entertainment and as a “cat-and-mouse” game with police, the U.S. Attorney’s Office wrote in a 2015 press release. Bukucs has since been released from prison. He was not available for comment.
Last month, Gresham police arrested 37-year old David Martinez. Investigators said Martinez shined a laser pointer at a Portland police airplane flying over Southeast Portland on July 22.
Martinez is being held on a parole violation. His girlfriend, Cynthia Hampton, said no one aimed the laser at an airplane. “I was pointing it at the kids. I was playing with the kids. It was funny,” said Hampton, who explained she bought the laser pointer online.
“It’s just a toy. It costs $11,” said Hampton. “If they sell something that could hit an aircraft that costs $11- then we’ve got a problem.”
A quick search shows powerful lasers are widely available online. One website features a green laser pointer that has “Super Range” for “5 Miles” selling for $9.
The risk for pilots and passengers has grown as laser pointers have become cheaper and more powerful.
“We want people to understand that the laser pointer they got for Christmas or they picked up at a discount store is not something they should toy around with,” said Steele from the FBI. “It can cost people their lives.”