Helicopter pilot Mike Sypien vividly remembers the morning of December 2020, when he was hit by a laser strike while flying over traffic for NBC 5.
“I noticed a laser coming through the window,” he said. As soon as his colleague Mike Lorber finished his on-air report, Sypien swung the helicopter around and began following the person who had fired the laser in those pre-dawn hours.
“Then when he got stuck at the traffic light, he rolled down the window and lasered us again,” he said. “We got it with the license plate, I mean, point-blank range, right in the cockpit.”
Sadly, incidents like this are on the rise, across the country, and at an alarming rate right here in Chicago.
A typical incident occurred on United Airlines Flight 2608, which departed Dulles International Airport outside Washington at 10:29 p.m. EST on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, carrying a plane loaded with passengers bound for Chicago. . At 11:45 p.m. CST, in key moments as the Boeing 737 maneuvered its approach to land at O’Hare International Airport, the plane’s pilots were struck by a dazzling flash of bright green light.
The laser in this case was perhaps a typical pointer type device that anyone can buy online or in stores. But if you shine this laser into people’s eyes, its concentrated light can temporarily blind them, and possibly even damage their vision. At best, it can cause pilots to be temporarily disoriented, which can be particularly dangerous during critical landing approach moments.
“Clearly weakening these pilots is something we don’t want to see and could lead to catastrophic results,” said Rebecca MacPherson, FAA regional administrator for the Great Lakes region. “The loss of an aircraft, especially a commercial aircraft, to a laser strike is something I don’t think anyone would want on their shoulders.”
There have been no plane crashes – or even minor accidents – linked to a laser attack. But members of the flying community say that’s no reason to downplay the danger.
“Because we didn’t lose [an aircraft]doesn’t mean there isn’t the potential for a very serious incident to occur,” said Capt. Bill Connor, a retired Delta pilot.
And NBC 5 Investigates found the situation was getting worse, and those higher numbers could increase the odds of something serious happening: The FAA released a study earlier this year that found reported laser strikes increased by more than 41% between 2020 and 2021, nationally.
That’s quite an increase.
But reported laser strikes in Illinois rose even more sharply last year — a steep 164% jump from 2020, when 162 strikes were reported, to 2021, which saw 428 total strikes reported. It’s the second-highest jump among the nation’s most populous states, with Illinois second only to Florida. And those 428 laser strikes are nearly as many as the previous three years combined.
Here’s what those strikes in Illinois look like on a graph, year by year:
And here in the greater Chicago area, those strikes have increased again, increasing 230% from 2020 to 2021, with 119 laser strikes reported locally in 2020 and 393 reported in 2021. That means the area has had more than three times more laser strikes. on aircraft in 2021, as in 2020.
Here’s what those laser strikes on planes in the greater Chicago area look like on a graph, year by year:
For example, United Flight 2608 was not alone last week at Thanksgiving in Chicago.
NBC 5 Investigates has found 34 reports of local laser attacks on planes, just during this week of intense air travel – lasers hitting everything from private planes and helicopters to giant cargo planes, and commercial planes ranging from small regional jets to gigantic Boeing 747 and 787. .
“This is a low probability event, with very high consequence potential,” MacPherson noted. “I think people don’t realize this is a crime.”
This step was taken by an outraged Congress in 2012, passing a law providing for five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for a conviction associated with a laser strike on an airplane. The FAA can also impose civil penalties of up to $11,000.
Here in Chicago, NBC 5 found an abundance of reports filed by local pilots in a NASA database.
- In 2021, a pilot reported a laser strike approaching O’Hare: “About five minutes later, I felt an intense feeling of nausea. I thought I was going to be sick.
- In 2019, from a pilot of an Embraer regional jet who was about to land at O’Hare: “We were bombarded by a bright laser from the left side. It was really shiny and I could see it on the ground, and they were pointing it towards the cockpit. …the laser [strike] got us high, and we were close to tolerances for a stable approach. Under normal circumstances I would have executed a go-around, but with the weather on both sides of us and another possible laser, [strike] I felt the best decision was to continue. We landed a little high and a little fast, but still reached the touchdown zone and the second high-speed taxiway.
- In 2017: “We were blown by a green ground laser several times during a visual approach to Midway. The laser entered my left eye, which made my eye water and saw a green spot when I closed my eye. …. This is the third time I have encountered a laser in a flight in the past three months! »
- In 2011: As a pilot took off from O’Hare, “just as we were starting [a] turn…I saw a brilliant green flash in bloom which at first startled me and I looked away in reflex…I’m convinced it was laser illumination. We were late in our work day but afterwards my eyes felt more tired and irritated than usual… In summary, the incident was surprising because the green flash was so bright. and I had more concern afterwards that even a brief exposure might have caused a change in my eyes.
- In 2010, from the pilot of a Boeing 757: “We were marked by a green laser light several times over a period of 2-3 minutes. There was no direct eye contact and we were careful not to look directly at the light. I was able to determine that the light was coming from a very dark area about miles SSE. It was either in a field or in a house far away.
- Another pilot from 2010: “Someone from the ground about 5-10 miles ahead of us shot a laser beam or bright light directly into the cockpit for about 3 seconds… It was slightly blinding.”
- A third pilot in 2010, at the controls of an MD-80 airliner: “[I] I looked up to see a very bright green focused spot on the floor just below the cockpit slightly offset to the right… Fortunately the beam didn’t hit my eye directly as it headed up. .”
- A fourth pilot, descending to O’Hare at the helm of a 757 in 2010: “A flash of a green laser came through the co-pilot’s front windshield hitting my right eye… I… I went to an eye doctor, he said. that there was no damage to my eye.
- In 2009, as a plane took off from O’Hare: “We were cleared to take off, runway 22L…and were then cleared by ORD tower to turn left 360 degrees. As we exited the bend, I observed a series of extremely intense and intermittent green light beams…I further observed the same light beam reflecting off my side window.
- In 2008, two pilots at the controls of an airliner “… observed a series of 5 or 6 green laser flashes aimed at the aircraft…”
- In 2007, as a pilot approached the runway to land at Chicago Executive Airport, “I was temporarily blinded by a very intense flash…I looked around and I noticed the Westin hotel was running a laser light show. The laser repeatedly flashed and pointed in the direction of the ILS terrain, putting the pilots in danger… This, without saying it, is a very dangerous situation.
In 18 years of trafficking in Chicago, Sypien estimates that he has been hit a dozen times.
“The end result could be absolutely tragic, and I don’t know how anyone could live with themselves if they did that,” he said. “And if anything were to happen, it’s not just the pilot, it’s going to be someone on the ground, someone’s house, the building — innocent people are going to be hurt if this plane goes down.”