BY Martin Finucane, Globe Staff
PUBLISHED BY: Boston.com
Pilots flying over Massachusetts reported seeing laser beams flashed in their direction eight times during 2008, with the rays hitting everything from commercial airliners landing at Logan International Airport to a State Police helicopter to the blimp floating over a Red Sox playoff game, according to a review of Federal Aviation Administration data.
The FAA takes all such incidents very seriously, officials said, because of the potential that pilots might be temporarily blinded by the beams.
“Lasers can temporarily impair pilots’ vision while they are in the critical landing or takeoff phases of flight,” said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the FAA’s western region, an area that has seen a large number of laser contacts.
Nationwide, during 2008, there were more than 900 reports by pilots of laser beams illuminating their planes, according to an FAA database obtained by the Globe. The Transportation Department announced in January 2005, after a rash of such incidents, that it was requiring pilots to immediately report laser contacts to air traffic controllers, who would then notify law enforcement.
“You don’t want a pilot to be incapacitated,” said FAA national office spokeswoman Laura Brown. “The message is: Do not shine laser lights at airplanes. You face federal prosecution and time in jail if you’re caught doing this.”
In several cases, pilots have reported being temporarily visually impaired and, in some instances, they have had to turn control over to a co-pilot or abort their landing. There have been no accidents or permanent injuries from the laser contacts, however, the officials said.
Gregor said he didn’t know why people point lasers at airplanes, but he noted that some of those arrested in the incidents had been consuming alcohol and others were teenagers. He said some contacts could also be accidents caused by amateur astronomers who use lasers to help them aim their telescopes or to point out constellations.
Laser contact reports have been on the rise nationally recently, he said, with more than 730 reported through July of this year, though it’s not clear if more pilots are reporting or if more people are actually pointing lasers into the sky. California was the leader in laser contact reports in 2008, with 276. Massachusetts was near the middle of the pack. In Alaska, Iowa, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and West Virginia, there was only one report listed on the database.
The vast majority of the pilots reported seeing green lasers. Gregor said green lasers can typically be seen at a greater distance than red lasers and their price has gone down in recent years.
The Massachusetts cases included several incidents in which people pointed lasers at planes at Boston’s Logan International Airport. Someone also pointed a laser at a State Police helicopter flying over the Six Flags theme park on July 14, 2008, and someone shone a laser at a blimp about a quarter-mile west of Fenway Park during an American League Championship series game on Oct. 13, 2008.
In March of this year, someone also beamed a laser at an American Airlines jet that was taxiing after landing at Logan in March.
A Medford man was charged after allegedly shining a laser into a State Police helicopter that was escorting a liquefied natural gas tanker into Boston Harbor in December 2007.
“I don’t know whether people who engage in this kind of irresponsible behavior are ignorant or malicious or both,” said Gregor. “People have been arrested all over the country for shining lasers at aircraft.”