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Blinding Trouble: More Pilots Reporting Laser Incidents While Flying

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- New data from aviation officials indicates more pilots are reporting seeing bright laser beams while flying.

As Derek Valcourt explains, the number of laser incidents has been climbing steadily for years.

State and federal officials have long been warning of the dangers lasers pose to pilots, but it appears those warnings and tough new laws are not having the desired effect.

Beams on laser pointers are small, but so powerful. They can travel tens of thousands of feet. Aim them at airplanes or helicopters, and that can spell blinding trouble for pilots.

"You can incapacitate a pilot and make it impossible or difficult for him or her to land their aircraft," said Bruce Landsberg, AOPA Foundation.

It's happening more and more often. Since 2006, the FAA has reported a steady increase in laser incidents. And already in the first five and a half months of this year, the numbers are still high--an estimated 1,500 cases.

Based on those numbers, is predicting a 1 to 16 percent increase in laser incidents in 2013. WJZ has investigated laser dangers to pilots for years.

In 2011, two Southwest pilots had to be hospitalized after they were briefly blinded by lasers as they came in for a landing at BWI with 130 people on board. In 2012, the FAA reports it happened 54 times to pilots in Maryland.

State police helicopter pilots are among them.

"We could have lost the whole aircraft had it been a different situation. Or had damage to our eyes," a pilot said.

Maryland lawmakers this year increased the punishments for pointing lasers at aircraft. What was $500 in fines will soon be $2,500 and up to three years in prison.

"I've been here 21 years and I've been a pilot for 41 years," said Landsberg.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association says more can be done, and the lasers should come with warnings.

"We ought to be putting identification in the package. Instructions and things that say 'Don't do this,'" Landsberg said.

Maryland's new laser pointer law with the tougher fines and punishments goes into effect Oct. 1.

So far, the FAA says it knows of no aircraft that has crashed as a direct result of lasers.

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