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FBI campaign aims to raise awareness about dangers of pointing lasers at aircraft

| Sunday, June 8, 2014, 11:09 p.m.

Medical helicopter officials applaud an escalating FBI campaign to deter people from pointing lasers at aircraft, a problem they encounter in Pittsburgh and across the country.

“It has been an issue for us. We've had a number of aircraft illuminated by lasers,” said John Kenny, director of operations for STAT MedEvac, based at the Allegheny County airport.

“At a minimum, it's a distraction in the cockpit when guys don't need it, especially during landing or takeoff. It does have the potential to cause injury if they get a direct shot in the eyes.”

The FBI campaign aims to educate the public about the dangers of using something as small as a hand-held laser. The act is a federal felony carrying a maximum prison sentence of five years and $250,000 fine.

The FBI announced it will offer a reward of up to $10,000 for information that leads to the arrest of anyone who aims a laser at aircraft.

The lasers are more than a small dot. Often when a laser hits a windshield, the light refracts and causes a dazzling effect that can be disorienting, officials said.

Tarek Loutfy, director of safety for Metro Aviation, which operates aircraft for LifeFlight locally, said his company trains pilots on how to deal with lasers.

“It's a huge problem. It's happening across the country,” Loutfy said. “I don't think people think it's a federal offense. It's usually kids screwing around. But depending on how strong the laser is, or where it hits, it can do long-term damage. If you can't see, you can't fly the aircraft.”

Since the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration began tracking laser strikes in 2005, the agencies documented more than a 1,200 percent increase. President Obama and Congress made it a federal offense in 2012 as part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act.

The FBI hopes an awareness campaign, which began in 12 FBI field offices in February and expanded to all 56 field offices last week, will curb the problem. The early campaign led to a 19 percent decrease in incidents in those cities, officials said.

“What we have found is that oftentimes the people who do it don't realize the ramifications,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Greg Heeb in the Pittsburgh office. “The reward is new. We wanted to stress the danger (lasers) cause. Oftentimes, we get reports after the fact. So if you see it, first call 911 and then we can follow up.”

Last year, the FAA recorded 3,960 incidents of lasers hitting aircraft, including 17 in the Pittsburgh area.

University of Pittsburgh police charged a student in 2011 with two counts of risking a catastrophe as a result of investigating two reports of someone around the Cathedral of Learning aiming a laser pointer at medical helicopters as they flew to UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland.

Bobby Kerlik is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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