Minnesota sees spike in aircraft hit with lasers but pilots rarely fully document exposure

While it may seem like a harmless prank, pointing a laser at planes and other aircraft mid-flight can put pilots, passengers and the people below in danger. 

Laser strikes involving aircraft in Minnesota more than doubled in 2021 from the previous year. However, at least one government watchdog agency claims not enough is being done to tackle the problem. 

According to statistics provided by the Federal Aviation Administration, nationwide at least 9,723 laser incidents were reported in 2021, which is the most ever recorded and represents a 42% jump from 2020. 

In Minnesota’s airspace, it was even worse, increasing 110% in that same time frame from 122 laser strikes in 2020 to 256 laser strikes in 2021. 

"It is a big risk," said Ryan Lambert, who is a flight instructor at AV8 Flight School in Eden Prairie. "It could really cause a severe risk or injury in the takeoff or landing phase of flight." 

Lambert recalls a recent laser strike during a flight with one of his students onboard. It happened on a training flight at night between St. Cloud and Staples in September 2021. They were cruising at an altitude of about 5,000 feet when he said the laser struck.

"You're putting people's lives in danger when you're shining a bright object at somebody that's trying to operate a sophisticated airplane," Lambert said. 

While no one was hurt, Lambert said it was a fleeting moment with potentially serious consequences. 

Pilot Luke Leverington insists such bright lasers can not only risk eyesight, but compromise a pilot’s vision for an extended period of time. 

"At least for half an hour to an hour – that's how long it takes your eyes to readjust to dark conditions. So, yeah, it could be a decent amount of time before you're going to see really well again in the dark," Leverington said. 

Out of the thousands of laser strikes that occurred nationwide last year, 47 flight crew injuries were reported to the FAA. 

The FOX 9 Investigators obtained federal records from one laser incident, which occurred as Delta Flight 1412 approached the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on June 26, 2022.

Air traffic control audio reveals reports of a blue laser and one operator asking if the flight crew needed assistance. The pilot reported a possible eye injury and the incident remains under federal investigation. 

While pointing a laser at an aircraft midflight is a federal crime, offenders are rarely prosecuted. Only about 1% of suspects are ever identified, according to a recent report by U.S. Government Accountability Office

To help with those law enforcement investigations, flight crews are asked by the FAA to fill out a five-page ‘Laser Beam Exposure Questionnaire’ – which is a document that could prove crucial in catching offenders. However, the document is hardly ever filled out.

The FAA collected those critical questionnaires only about 12% of the time, according to the GAO report. 

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the FOX 9 Investigators confirmed during the September 2022 Delta flight incident, the pilot never filled out the laser beam exposure document.

Similarly, when flight instructor Ryan Lambert was struck with a laser last year, he did not complete the document either. When asked about why pilots rarely complete the questionnaire, Lambert said: "I think just the length of the questionnaire… is a little, you know, lengthy."

Repeated requests for an interview with the FAA were ignored. However, the agency provided a statement that said, in part, the FAA "...works closely with other federal agencies and state and local governments to report and investigate incidents, help apprehend suspects, and advocate for the prosecution of offenders."

However, the GAO report refutes just how effective the FAA has been on that front, finding the agency "does not consistently share the information collected with law enforcement."

While it’s unclear what’s fueling the recent surge in laser activity, the instructors at AV8 Flight School are preparing their students on how to handle it. 

"With the uptick, it’s probably something that we are going to tell our students about and tell them to look out for," said Leverington, also adding a plea to the public: "It’s not just fun and games. You actually could be playing with the safety of somebody’s life."

Pointing a laser at an aircraft mid-flight is a federal crime that carries potential jail time and $11,000 in fines. However, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota told the FOX 9 Investigators it is not aware of any such federal cases in Minnesota.