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FBI targets laser pointer attacks on airplanes

FBI targets laser pointer attacks on airplanes

POCATELLO, Idaho - This week the FBI has been looking for an individual in Salt Lake City who is suspected of pointing lasers at airplanes.

Pocatello Regional Airport's AvCenter flight instructor Mike Marquette is a retired pilot who has flown for more than 30 years. Needless to say, he knows a thing or two about how crucial a pilot's vision is, and how quickly it can be compromised by the flash of a laser pointer.

"Vision is key to flying airplanes," Marquette said. "You could be certified deaf and fly an airplane, but there are no blind pilots because we need our eyes to fly, period."

Marquette said often times pilots will see that flash of a laser pointer coming in during landing which can cause temporary blindness during the most crucial time of the flight.

"We don't want to compromise our spatial visibility to be able to make the judgement for depth and everything we need in order to make the landing," Marquette added.

Optometrist Dr. Coleman Anderson said shining a laser pointer in American soldiers' eyes was a common tactic he saw when he was stationed in Iraq.

He said there are two types of injuries laser pointers can cause the eyes. 

The first type is permanent damage, which usually happens when stronger lasers are pointed at the eyes, or laser pointers are focused on the eyes for a longer period of time.

The first, and most common type of damage he sees is called 'temporary flash burn' which causes temporary blindness. He said this is similar to the effect your eyes feel after the flash of a camera goes off in a dark room.

"It usually hits the macula, which is the center part of the retina, the part of the eye that allows us to see things," Anderson said. "And so because the light is so condensed and so focused, it can do damage and burn that part of the retina. It's kind of like macular degeneration - once the macula is not there, you're not seeing whatever it is you are looking at. It's gone, and there is no way to replace that."

Although the damage is not permanent in most cases, even a few seconds of temporary blindness could be fatal for the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of passengers on a commercial flight.

"It would be like if I were welding without a welding helmet and that bright, bright light will flash in your eyes and not only compromise your vision temporarily, but talk to welders and they will say the day after, it will feel almost as if your eyes have bags of sand in them," Marquette described.

Marquette said pilots are very much aware of how law enforcement agencies have been recently cracking-down on this problem since it can be extremely dangerous for both the pilots and the passengers on the plane.

In fact, the FBI has seen an 1,100 percent increase in this problem since 2005.

If found guilty of intentionally pointing a laser at a plane, that could land you in prison for about five years and cost roughly $250,000 in fines.

So, what seems like a harmless prank to most people could, in fact, be more dangerous than they know.

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