Jet airliners, Coast Guard rescue helicopters and a single-engine airplane have all been targets of a growing, dangerous trend in southern New Jersey - handheld laser beams were pointed at them.
Overall, 14 aircraft near Atlantic City International Airport were pinpointed with recreational laser pointers in 2010, more than double the year before. There were six in 2009 and three in 2008.
Nationally, incidents increased 86 percent in 2010, concerning aviation officials and lawmakers who say the powerful, readily available and, for the most part, legal lasers can pose serious safety concerns for pilots and their passengers.
Ocean City was the source of most of the incidents locally, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.
Police this summer requested that stores stop selling the devices. Meanwhile, police contacted state lawmakers regarding possible legislation that would ban the sale of the most powerful lasers on the market.
Officials said the lasers are a growing concern because the beams can temporarily blind or distract a pilot during the most critical times of flight takeoffs and landings.
"You need your night vision," said Chris Dancy, spokesman for the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association. "The cockpit is dark, the instruments are dimmed. You need to be able to see well outside of the aircraft to watch for other planes. ... It's an awfully big sky out there."
Locally, most of the reports came out of Ocean City, with other incidents reported in Sea Isle City, Wildwood Crest, Atlantic City, Barnegat Township and Toms River. They all occurred between July 21 and Oct. 5.
One reportedly came from a boat; another from potentially atop an Ocean City Ferris wheel.
Coast Guard Dolphin helicopters were targeted several times during search-and-rescue training sessions.
No injuries were reported.
Pilots notified authorities that the lasers - all green beams - were pointed at their wings, flight decks and, most dangerously, the cockpit itself, the FAA said. Green lasers, which can be modified to emit more radiation than the manufacturer intended, can cause permanent eye damage, the Coast Guard said.
Nationally, there were 2,836 reports in 2010, an 86 percent increase from 2009. In 2005, when the FAA began tracking these incidents, there were about 300.
"It's highly unlikely the people doing it are doing it with malicious intent," Dancy said. "They're probably just playing with them as a toy, just a small device, not really thinking about the implications of them illuminating an aircraft."
In the summer, Ocean City police tried to curb the string of incidents believed to be coming from the Boardwalk by asking merchants not to sell the lasers.
For the most part it worked, Ocean City police Lt. Steven Ang said.
"We had a 90 percent immediate cooperation," Ang said. "One or two said the lasers were not powerful enough and wanted to sell out their stock."
In the meantime, Ocean City police and the Coast Guard, which flies helicopters in the area, had contacted state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, about the issue, Van Drew said.
Van Drew is the sponsor of a bill that would ban the sale of the most powerful laser pointers in New Jersey. Federal regulations allow for sale of laser pointers up to 5 milliwatts. The state bill would ban any laser pointers more powerful than 1 milliwatt.
"It's distracting and it could create safety issues, putting Coast Guard and commercial airlines at risk," Van Drew said.
Laser beam incidents were highest at major metropolitan airports.
Philadelphia International Airport reported 66 in 2010, the seventh highest in the country. Newark Liberty International Airport reported 38, making it the 10th highest in the country, FAA statistics show.
The FAA believes the drastic increases are due to availability of inexpensive lasers, higher power levels that allow the beams to hit aircrafts at higher altitudes and the use of green lasers, which are more easily seen than red lasers.
State law prohibits pointing lasers at transportation vehicles such as aircraft and automobiles. Federal charges can also be filed, and carry a sentence of as many as 20 years in prison.
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