NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Every day, pilots across the country face a danger the FBI says could crash a plane. And it's happening in New Orleans, too.
Our investigation uncovered laser strikes are happening a lot more often than you might think. Pilots reported incidents all over the country, including at Armstrong International.
We talked with a Fed Ex pilot who knows all too well what it's like. Captain Chuck Dyer told us about a laser strike he encountered overseas in 2009.
"The whole cockpit was bathed in green light," said Dyer, "I would say for the co-pilot in particular, the fact that he looked at it, it was a very strong laser. I think he had some flash blindness and was very distracted by it through the rest of the flight."
It happens when someone on the ground shines a laser pointer at an aircraft up above. While it may seem like a harmless prank to some, we found it can have alarming consequences.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration's website, "Many high-powered lasers can completely incapacitate pilots who are trying to fly safely to their destinations and may be carrying hundreds of passengers."
"We have had people out on disability recovering from retinal burns, so, they're powerful," said Dyer.
FAA records obtained by FOX 8 reveal in December 2014, a Southwest flight that took off from Armstrong International headed to Hobby Airport in Houston had its "cockpit illuminated by a green laser." The captain had to be pulled from the next flight after reporting "burning eyes" and a "5 to 10 percent loss of vision."
We found another pilot reporting "significant vision problems," after being "lased" near Indianapolis.
And it's not just happening to pilots of cargo companies and major airlines like Southwest, Delta and United. Those flying medical and police helicopters are being disrupted, too. In January 2014, a flight crew en route to a hospital had to land at Dallas Love Field after they were hit by a green laser and paramedic on board reported being injured.
"The unintended consequences of what these folks are doing could be taking down an airplane," said New Orleans FBI Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey Sallet.
Sallet said not only is it dangerous, it's also a federal crime.
"Where are they coming from? People are giving these out at conferences as a presentation tool. They might give them out on a keychain, so the availability of laser pointers is pretty substantial," Sallet said.
And while those laser pointers are legal, those using them might not realize their beam can reach for miles,"I don't know how much the people who are doing it are aware of how dangerous it actually can be," said Dyer.
"According to the information that we have a green laser is one of the most dangerous type of lasers to use based on the impact that it would have on somebody's eyes, so, meaning the blinding factor which again is the biggest concern for a pilot or somebody who is in motion, would be the fact of losing their sight for any period of time," said Sallet.
According to the FAA, there's thousands of laser strikes reported each year across the country. There were nearly 4000 cases nationwide in 2014. But, that number nearly doubled last year.
Here in New Orleans from 2010 through 2014, more than 60 laser strikes were reported with the majority of those happening at Armstrong International.
"If we catch you, we are going to put the full weight of the United States government behind it, because people have to understand how very serious this problem is," said Sallet.
And whether it's a plane full of passengers, a medical helicopter with a patient on board, or a cargo flight, the problem poses a real threat for pilots like Dyer, and potentially for you, too.
"The danger for the public in particular is just the distraction potential for this," Dyer said. "If you are in a critical phase of flight, landing approach, you can imagine if you are very near touch-down in a very demanding landing - say high winds, bad weather - and were to get hit in the face with one of these, it would create a real challenge."
Dyer is also with the pilots union Airline Pilots Association International. He said more than 12,000 laser strikes are projected to happen this year in the U.S. alone. Laser strikes are a felony offense. If you're caught, you could face up to five year in prison and fined up to $250,000.