ORLANDO, Fla. -- The laser pointer that provides endless entertainment to your cat may seem harmless, but federal authorities say the device is increasingly directed at aircraft -- putting pilots and passengers in jeopardy.
Known as "lasing," a pinhole-sized laser aimed at airplane and helicopter cockpits can temporarily blind pilots or cause permanent damage to their eyes. That tiny beam can expand to several feet wide in the sky, and as the light hits the cockpit window, it brightly flashes -- producing an effect similar to oncoming high beams on a dark road.
The number of lasing incidents in the United States has skyrocketed in recent years, prompting the FBI to launch a national public-awareness campaign Tuesday.
In 2005, there were 283 incidents nationally involving lasers pointed at aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration reports. By 2013, there were 3,960.
"I can't stress enough how dangerous and irresponsible it is to point a laser at an aircraft," FAA administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. "We know that targeted enforcement has succeeded in driving down laser incidents in a number of cities, and we'll continue to partner with law enforcement to address this problem nationwide."
So far this year, there have been 1,337 lasing incidents across the United States, said FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen.
Almost all lasing incidents occur at night and when airplanes are taking off or landing -- a critical point during the flight, said Sean Cassidy, first vice president and national safety coordinator of the Air Line Pilots Association, International.
It is a federal crime to point a laser at an aircraft, and punishable by as much as five years in prison and a fine of as much as $250,000.