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Minnesota man sentenced to 2 years in prison for laser strike on Delta Air Lines jet

Aircraft laser strikes on the rise
FAA sees record high number of reported laser strikes in 2021 02:55

A federal judge in Wisconsin sentenced a Minnesota man on Friday to two years in prison for aiming a laser at a Delta Air Lines jet in 2021, an act that prosecutors said disrupted the pilots' efforts to land and put passengers in "incredible danger."

James Link, 43, of Rochester, Minnesota, pleaded guilty in January.

Laser strikes on planes and helicopters hit a record in the U.S. in 2021. Pilots reported 9,723 incidents, a 41% jump over the year before, according to Federal Aviation Administration figures. The FAA said it handed out $120,000 in fines in 2021. Violators like Link can also face up to five years in prison.

According to the U.S. attorney's office in Madison, the pilots of the Delta flight from Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, to Minneapolis on Oct. 29, 2021, reported that their cockpit was lit up three times by a bright blue laser while they were at an altitude of 9,000 feet just west of River Falls, Wisconsin. At the time, air traffic control had just instructed them to change runways, which required them to plot a new course to the Minneapolis airport.

"The laser strikes caused a major distraction in the cockpit as they were not able to look at their iPads to brief the new approach," prosecutors said in a statement.

The pilots were eventually able to chart the new path and land safely, the statement said.

"The first officer did not suffer any disruption to his vision, but the captain said that vision in his right eye was affected for several hours after this event," prosecutors said.

Air traffic control called a Minnesota State Patrol aircraft, which flew to River Falls. The State Patrol aircraft was also struck by a blue laser. The pilots spotted the suspect and worked with River Falls police, who found Link with a blue laser on his person.

At sentencing, U.S. District Judge William Conley remarked on Link's extensive criminal record, which included numerous domestic assaults. He also said the behavior was similar to a 2017 arrest when Link shined a flashlight in the eyes of the arresting officer.

"Judge Conley called aiming a laser at an aircraft incredibly dangerous and reckless, and in this case forced the Delta pilots to focus on their temporary blindness which put everyone on the aircraft in incredible danger," the statement said.

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Despite a slight decline in reported laser strikes on aircraf in 2022 compared with the previous annual record, the number of incidents remained high last year, with pilots reporting almost 9,500 laser strikes to the FAA, according to the agency.

"The FAA remains vigilant in its campaign to heighten public awareness of the serious safety risk posed by lasers pointed at aircraft," the FAA wrote in a statement shared to its website alongside the reported incident data from 2022.

Laser strikes were already being reported in high numbers mid-way through last year. In response to the surge, a government watchdog called on the FAA to improve its approach to managing these types of incidents, which can temporarily blind or disorient pilots steering the targeted aircraft. 

In a report released last August, the Government Accountability Office pointed out that the FAA and law enforcement had in 2015 disbanded an interagency team that previously addressed laser strike incidents and laser safety. Reports of such attacks nearly doubled that same year and continued to increase over the years that followed, according to the watchdog.

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