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SALT LAKE CITY — Laser strikes on aircraft are rising again, and the Federal Aviation Administration warns that offenders face hefty fines if they're caught.
The FAA has already received nearly as many laser strike reports this year as it did all of last year, and Utah is among the states with the biggest problem.
KSL-TV first reported on this 17 years ago, and the problem has only gotten worse. At that time, there were just a few reports of laser strikes in Utah each year and only a couple hundred nationally.
Last year, there were 203 laser strikes reported in Utah, the eighth-highest number in the nation.
"This is a real, serious safety concern to us," said Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman.
Last weekend, pilots reported more than 130 laser strikes on aircraft nationwide. So far this year, there have been 6,732 reports of laser strikes on aircraft to the FAA. That's nearly as many as the 6,852 reported all of last year.
"Shining a laser at an aircraft can distract the pilot, or it can even temporarily blind a pilot, and that can be very, very serious," the FAA spokesman said.
Especially when the aircraft is in the sensitive takeoff or landing phase.
"People don't understand how dangerous being struck in the eye with a laser is," said KSL Chopper 5 pilot Ben Tidswell.
But, he does — Chopper 5 has been a target for lasers in the past.
"We have been struck a couple of times," Tidswell said. "One of my backup pilots has been struck. But, I know from reports that the FAA puts out that there are frequently laser strikes on commercial aircraft flying into Salt Lake City."
Two years ago, as Chopper 5 was finishing up shooting some video in Utah County, there was a flash of light in the cockpit when the photographer on board turned the camera on the laser.
"We were actually able to catch the individual shining a laser at us," the pilot said.
So what's it like in the cockpit when the laser shines in?
"Imagine standing about 15 feet away from a car with its headlights on high beam, and looking directly into a headlamp," Tidswell said. "It's very bright, it's very dazzling, it's very uncomfortable."
People who shine lasers at aircraft face FAA fines of up to $11,000 per violation and up to $30,000 for multiple incidents. Over the past decade, the FAA has issued more than $620,000 in fines, including $120,000 last year alone.
"There have been a number of cases where people have been sentenced to prison for shining lasers at aircraft," Gregor said.
According to FAA statistics, this crime was actually trending down after it had peaked in 2015 and 2016. Laser strikes started to pick up again during the pandemic, even though there were fewer flights in the air.