It’s almost as if somebody lit a firework right in front of the aircraft — Albuquerque police Sgt. Will Taylor


Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

It happens all the time.

Albuquerque police Sgt. Will Taylor, a pilot in the department’s Aviation Unit, said sometimes a couple of times a week he’ll be flying in Albuquerque skies and a laser pointer strikes the helicopter. If it hits the acrylic window just right, the laser can flare the entire window and temporarily blind the crew.

“It’s almost as if somebody lit a firework right in front of the aircraft,” he said. “It’s the equivalent of literally somebody in a very dark room taking a flash and just flashing in your eyes. So it causes you to lose that night vision for a while. It can be four seconds, it can be four minutes, depending on how intense the exposure is.”

Though it’s readily available technology, a laser pointer can be dangerous when it strikes an aircraft.

And the strikes have become more common in Albuquerque, according to pilots in the 58th Special Operations Wing at Kirtland Air Force Base, where hundreds of airmen complete regular training flights at night when the aircraft are more vulnerable to being affected by a laser pointer.

Between August 2020 and August 2021, 58th SOW pilots reported 20 instances of being lased, according to KAFB officials.

NM 7th in incidents

The Federal Aviation Administration in a recent report found that New Mexico had the seventh most laser incidents in the country per capita, according to KAFB officials.

Kiiva Williams, a spokeswoman for the FAA, said across the country the agency received 9,723 laser strike reports from pilots in 2021, the highest number ever recorded by the agency. People who shine lasers at aircraft face fines of up to $11,000 per violation and up to $30,800 for multiple laser incidents.

She had no specific data on how often people in New Mexico face consequences for shining a laser pointer at an aircraft.

A KAFB news release says the reported lasing incidents in New Mexico have increased 218% since 2019.

“If (a laser beam) comes inside the cockpit and anybody gets it near their face, we’ll terminate the training sortie at that point,” said Col. Michael Curry, the commander of the 58th SOW. “We come back here to Kirtland. And then there’s a checklist we use and then we call over to optometry to get evaluated to make sure that we don’t have any injuries.”

Medical evaluations needed

Lt. Col. Syreeta Lawrence, KAFB’s optometrist, said that if airmen are struck with a laser while flying, the affected crew needs to be evaluated before they can fly again. That evaluation includes having their pupils dilated.

Lawrence said she’s had patients on base who had lingering issues for an extended period of time after being lased while flying. She hasn’t treated anyone who suffered permanent injuries.

“So you can get something that’s short term,” she said. “Or you can get anything from like burns, thermal burns or bleeding or swelling in the retina.”

Curry said the Air Force rarely sees where the laser is coming from, in part because the first protocol is for the whole crew to go “eyes in” at the first sign of laser.

“If they see a laser start to track it in the sky, their first call will be to say ‘Eyes in,’” he said. “Which is look at your instruments, focus on that and get to a safe altitude so we don’t get blinded by the laser.”

APD can track

Albuquerque police, on the other hand, have a camera attached to their helicopter that can quickly hone in on the source of the laser and provide police with an address.

Taylor said officers will make reports on the incident and forward them to the FAA, which would enforce the federal law prohibiting people from using a laser against an aircraft.

Curry said he thinks pilots are seeing an increase in laser incidents because lasers are so common. Taylor said that the frequency of aircraft in Albuquerque – there is a Air Force base, pilot schools, the state’s only Level 1 trauma center and other hospitals with helipads in the city – could be another reason why the occurrences are frequent.

“I personally do not believe that people are being nefarious or they’re trying to cause harm or trying to disrupt any air operations,” Curry said. “I think it’s simply that they have (lasers). And they want to shine them up and see if they can see if they can actually get it on the airplane as it goes over.”