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Laser strikes on planes reported near Lambert Airport

by Diana Zoga / News 4

KMOV.com

Posted on May 29, 2012 at 9:19 PM

Updated Wednesday, May 30 at 10:56 AM

ST. LOUIS (KMOV) -- As the pilot of Delta Flight 1426 approached St. Louis on Monday night, a green light filled the cockpit.

The pilot reported that someone from the ground was pointing a laser at the aircraft, about 12 miles southeast of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

According to aviation officials, laser strikes are a growing problem, and the number of reported strikes continues to rise, despite public education campaigns launched by the Federal Aviation Administration.

"It's like someone with a flash camera sets it off in your face in a dark room," said retired airline pilot Mel Burkart.

Burkart says it usually happens at the worst possible time, when a pilot is trying to take off, or land the plane.

"Initially, there's shock. Secondly, you can't see for awhile because of the flash blindness. So that's what's really scary if someone is trying to fly the airplane and he's trying to fly it by reference to instruments."

Sunday night, a helicopter pilot reported a similar incident around 9:20 pm, three miles northeast of Lambert.

Since 2005, when the FAA first began keeping track of laser strikes on aircraft, the number of reports has gone up dramatically. In 2005, there were 283 incidents. By 2010, there were 2,836 incidents. Last year, pilots reported 3,592 laser strikes to the FAA. Of those, 20 were reported at or near Lambert.

Last year, police arrested a 30-year-old St. Charles man, accused of aiming a laser pointer from his yard into the cockpit of a plane.  In 2010, a 26-year-old O'Fallon, Missouri man publicly apologized to police after pointing a laser at a law enforcement helicopter.

"I suspect most people that are doing it are doing it in fun, in jest, as a lark," said Burkart.

But, it's no joke to pilots who report temporary blindness or have to take evasive action to avoid the laser light.

Last year, the FAA announced that it's staff will push for stiffer penalties for anyone caught pointing a laser at aircraft, including imposing civil fines of up to $11,000 for one laser strike.

Often, a county police helicopter will launch to try and pinpoint the source of the strike, after a pilot reports an incident. Sunday, St. Louis County Police said it's helicopter wasn't available, so the agency reported the strike on the helicopter pilot to the Joint Terrorism Task Force.  So far, no arrests have been made in the most recent cases.

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