SOUTHWEST FLORIDA - It's a prank that can send you to prison: aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft.
In the last few years, reports of laser strikes have gone up at alarming levels around the country and right here in southwest Florida. So much that now, the FBI is offering big money to people who report the crime.
When you board a plane, you put your life in the pilot's hands. But threats from the ground can be distracting, even disastrous.
"About six months ago, there was an airliner coming in for landing here in Punta Gorda," said Robert Steht, a pilot for the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office. "They reported to us that they'd been hit by a laser."
Steht knows the danger first-hand.
"It kind of catches you off-guard," Steht said. "I've been struck with a laser at least five times, not in this area. When the laser hits the glass it'll reflect around the cockpit. It almost looks like if you had green shattered glass or spider webs in a green color."
One strike can cause temporary flash blindness, permanent eye damage or worse.
"Looking away and flying away could blind you into the side of the control tower," Steht said.
"There is a real threat to aviation safety," FBI Special Agent Dave Couvertier said.
The FBI and FAA started tracking deliberate strikes in 2005. Since then, they've seen a more than 1,100% increase.
Last year, the FAA tracked nearly 4,000 reports nationwide, 11 a day on average. There were 328 in Florida, 4 at RSW, 1 at Page Feld and 2 at Punta Gorda Airport.
"If we start looking at the numbers in 2013 and 2014, we have an 18% increase in laser strikes within the Tampa Division or the 18 counties in central and southwest Florida," Couvertier said.
In just the first half of this year, the FAA got 5,458 reports which is well past the 2013 total!
The FBI is now offering up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of anyone aiming a laser at an aircraft. Penalties are no joke. If convicted, you can get up to 5 years in prison a $250,000 fine, or both.
Michael Smith of Lehigh Acres got caught doing it in 2011. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison for the charge after violating probation.
"The technology of lasers has become relatively cheap. Basically, anyone can get on the internet and purchase a laser," Couvertier said.
The FDA requires laser makers to limit power to 5 milliwatts or less like one we bought for $3 at Walmart. But, there are do-it-yourself videos online showing how to transform a relatively harmless pointer into a burning laser.
"You get hit right in the Fovia with that laser light and that's all she wrote. It doesn't take long just a couple of seconds," Optometrist Dr. Michael Wesson said.
Wesson stresses, lasers need to be taken seriously. They can cause permanent impairment and at this point, there's no way to fix it. "The cell no longer is capable of carrying visual information," Wesson said.
"I don't think most people are doing it with any criminal intent," Steht said. "Most of it is just people trying to be funny, trying to see if they can hit the helicopter. It's just not worth it. There's too many dangerous things. Too many people who can get hurt if it goes bad."
Here's where you come in. If you see someone pointing a laser at an aircraft, report it. Just call 911 or contact our local FBI field office in Tampa at (813) 253-1000 or firstname.lastname@example.org.