(NEW YORK) — It starts as a bright, narrow beam of green light at ground level, but by the time it gets to the cockpit, the small laser pointer explodes into a blinding bright flash.
Such laser strikes are a genuine hazard for pilots like Solomon Loop, who flies the news helicopter for ABC station KGO-TV in San Francisco.
“You might think it’s funny, you might think it’s fun, but it’s extremely dangerous,” Loop said.
He saw his cockpit light up two weeks ago and trained his copter camera on two men walking on the sidewalk below, capturing their crime on tape.
“The guy was standing on his front porch, his face was really obvious and he kept doing it over and over again,” Loop said.
Police arrested the prankster, who allegedly still had the laser in his pocket, and he now faces an $11,000 federal fine, if convicted. Another KGO pilot was hit just this past Sunday night, marking two attacks in only two weeks.
The FAA, FBI and local police are cracking down after a jump in laser attacks over the past few years.
Last year, 3,500 cases of the laser attacks were documented, up from only 300 in 2005, the first year the FAA started reporting laser strikes to aircrafts.
This January saw a record pace of nearly 350 laser sightings, and if the numbers continue at that pace for the rest of 2013 it would be a new record.
And helicopters aren’t the only victims — commercial airline pilots have also complained of night blindness and injury caused by the laser pointers.
The pilot of a JetBlue flight out of Syracuse suffered a minor eye injury on July 16, 2012, when a green laser shone through the plane’s windshield.
“We just got lasered up here — two green flashes into the cockpit,” the pilot was heard telling air traffic controllers on LIVEATC.NET. “Can you have medical personnel meet at the gate…the first officer is having vision problems.”
In Glendale, Calif., a night patrol uses an infrared camera and aerial tracking devices to track down laser bandits. In the last year and a half 16 alleged laser pointers have been arrested.
According to officer pilot Mike Woolner, a laser shine that is only the size of a pencil on the ground is intensified by the distance.
“The problem is that at the altitudes that we fly, when somebody’s hitting us from the ground…the farther away it gets from the point of origin, the beam spreads out,” Woolner said. “So a beam that maybe at 10 feet was the size of a pencil is maybe now (500 feet in the air) 12 inches in diameter depending on the distance.”
Woolner added that the beam is refracted off the cockpit glass, which intensifies the laser light even more.
“It’s a very bright, dazzling beam that comes in, and then the whole inside of the cockpit becomes illuminated with this really bright green light,” he said, which causes greater problems to a pilot whose eyes have adjusted to the dark conditions of night flight.
Chief pilot Steve Robertson, a 20-year veteran, was hospitalized with two burned corneas from a laser.
“We treat it like any other crime, I mean it’s an assault on police,” Steve Robertson, lieutenant chief pilot for the Glendale Police Department, told ABC News. “We track them down just as we would if they had robbed a bank or if they just committed any other type of assault.”
Robertson says part of the problem is that folks think it is “just an annoyance” to the pilot, when in reality lives are at risk.
“These are real people’s lives, crews,” he said. “You take the vision from a pilot, that aircraft’s ability to land is greatly compromised.”
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Jason Hanna, CNN
Ray Sanchez, CNN
Heather Long, CNN
Eric Levenson and Dakin Andone, CNN