Cops: 2 laser incidents in skies over LI

Pilots describe the disorienting effect of lasers being shone into plane cockpits. FBI video via YouTube. (Aug. 22, 2012)

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Laser beams were pointed at a passenger jet and a police helicopter Tuesday night on Long Island -- part of a sharp rise in incidents nationwide that federal authorities say puts pilots and passengers in danger.

Suffolk police and the FBI are investigating the incidents, which occurred near Shirley.

The first report involved Sun Country Airlines Flight 8800, a chartered Boeing 737-800 heading to Kennedy Airport from Reykjavik, Iceland.

The jet was at about 12,000 feet when a green laser beam hit the cockpit. The plane landed safely about 8:35 p.m., police said.

After the crew alerted air traffic controllers, a police helicopter was dispatched. A green laser was also pointed at its cockpit, authorities said. There have been no arrests in either incident.

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Handheld lasers have now been suspected in five Long Island incidents since mid-July, targeting two commercial jets, two police helicopters and a patrol boat.

"These types of incidents are serious," said J. Peter Donald, an FBI spokesman in New York City. "If you blind or injure a pilot, there is the potential to bring down an aircraft."

Federal Aviation Administration statistics show a dramatic leap in lasers being shined at aircraft. There were 283 cases in 2005, the year the agency created a formal reporting system.

Last year, 3,592 laser incidents were reported by the FAA. Of those, 97 occurred in New York State. So far this year, there have been 2,040 incidents; 48 in New York.

Some pilots hit by laser beams around the country have been temporarily blinded, and a number of crews have had to take evasive action, the agency said.

Handheld lasers are commonly used as pointers in corporate boardrooms and college classrooms, but the Internet has made the devices more available to hobbyists and prices have dropped, aviation officials said. Powerful lasers that once cost more than $1,000 can now be bought online for a few hundred dollars.

"I would say availability is a big issue," said Rick Ulrick, an analyst with NASA's aviation-safety reporting system in Sunnyvale, Calif. "They're cheap, and they're easy to get."

Tuesday's incidents are the latest in a string on Long Island.

David Smith, 22, of St. James, was charged with reckless endangerment and other crimes after police say he shined a laser at a small plane and a police helicopter near Ronkonkoma last December. His next court appearance is scheduled for Sept. 7.

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On July 24, a 14-year-old boy from Brentwood aimed a laser at the crew of a police helicopter, authorities said. The case remains under investigation.

Ten days earlier, a pilot of a New York-bound JetBlue flight reported a minor eye injury after a laser hit the cockpit as the jet flew over Suffolk.

Earlier this week, an 18-year-old man was arrested after police said he pointed a laser at an officer in a Marine Bureau boat patrolling the Great South Bay.

The dangers can't be overstated, according to Capt. John Blosser, of Suffolk's Special Patrol Bureau. "There's a dazzle effect when a laser hits the windshield," he said. "You can get flash blindness. Depending on how intense it is, you can get burning or bruising of the retina."

Ulrick, of NASA, said the laser incidents continue to rise despite a crackdown that has resulted in more prosecutions and fines. Shining a laser beam at an aircraft is a violation of federal law, punishable by up to 5 years in prison and an $11,000 fine.

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Putting more offenders behind bars would help, he said. "Eventually they would get the message."

With John Valenti

A dangerous trend

Reports of aircraft being hit with laser beams are surging nationally:

2011: 3,592

2010: 2,836

2009: 1,527

2008: 913

2007: 590

2006: 384

2005: 283

Source: FAA

RECENT LASER INCIDENTS OVER LI

AUG. 21: A laser beam hit the cockpit of an international charter flight descending into Kennedy Airport. A responding police helicopter was also hit with a laser. Both incidents occurred near Brookhaven Calabro Airport in Shirley, Suffolk police said. No arrests have been made.

AUG. 20: A laser was pointed at a Marine Bureau boat patrolling the Great South Bay, police said. Erik Barry, 18, of Sayville, was arrested and charged with reckless endangerment.

JULY 24: A teenager pointed a laser at a police helicopter flying over Brentwood, authorities said. Police determined a 14-year-old boy used the device. The case is under investigation.

JULY 15: A laser beam shined into the cockpit of a JetBlue Airways flight over Suffolk, causing vision problems for the pilot as the plane descended into Kennedy Airport, officials said. No arrest has been made.

Source: FAA, police reports

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