TAMPA, Fla — Officials in Tampa are warning local residents about the dangers of shining laser pointers at aircraft after they've seen an uptick in incidents this year.
According to Chris Shepherd, the chief pilot for Tampa Police Department's aviation unit, the incidents have been putting pilots and passengers in danger. One commercial pilot this year said he was briefly blinded by a laser while flying an aircraft with hundreds of people on board.
"Once the laser hits the windshield, it refracts and creates this large flash in the cockpit," Shepherd said. "If it hits the eye correctly, it can actually do damage to the eye, and at that point, the pilot would have to receive medical care."
"The pilot's often forced to look away or to duck down or do maneuvers that are not what we would want a pilot to typically be doing when they're in control of an aircraft," said Michael O'Harra, the regional administrator for FAA's southern region.
Such incidents create incredibly dangerous situations for folks in the air and on the ground.
"It's happening a lot here in Tampa. It goes in waves — we'll have a period where we won't have any strikes, and then it will pick up," Shepherd said.
There have been 458 laser strikes in Florida this year and 56 in Tampa alone — making it the second-highest city in Florida in reported laser strikes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
O'Harra says nearly half of the 56 were aimed at aircraft below 3,000 feet.
"That's obviously a critical phase of flight when pilots need to be focused on getting those airplanes up and out of the airport safely or perhaps making their final approach to the airport," he said.
It's why the consequences are so steep. Pointing a laser at an aircraft is considered a felony and can cost $11,000 in FAA fines — and those fines increase for those who point lasers at multiple aircraft. Those convicted could also face up to five years in prison.
Tampa Police Department helicopters are equipped with technology that allows pilots like Shepherd and his team to catch people who do point lasers at their aircraft.
"We can follow it right down directly to the person who has the laser in their hand," he said.
The FAA has handed out $120,000 in fines this year. Click here to report laser strikes to the FAA.
This story was originally published by Heather Leigh on Scripps station WFTS in Tampa, Florida.