AUSTIN, Texas - When a laser pointer flashes into the cabin of a StarFlight helicopter, the single line of light scatters.
"When they hit the Plexiglass, it basically lights up the whole cockpit," said StarFlight pilot Ryan Kelly.
Kelly said he's been hit three times during his career flying medical missions. He described the most recent incident which took place in late December 2022.
"Just like you're looking at the sun. Almost, I mean, the best way I can describe it, it's like getting sucker punched almost, because you can't do anything about it. Comes out of the blue," said Kelly.
StarFlight helicopters had four laser strikes in the last quarter of 2022. That's an increase over previous years, according to Safety Director Joe LebBecque.
"We've changed some of our launch protocols which have us flying over the city a little more than we're used to. We usually fly out to the outskirts of the county, but we've been doing more and more within the city, and a lot of that's been at nighttime," said LeBrecque.
Not every laser strike takes place in the dark. Several daytime cases have also been recorded.
"Daytime just as dangerous because the green laser can cause permanent damage to the pilot. And we still have to look away. If I look directly at somebody hitting me with a green laser, I can be temporarily blinded. And then you have a pilot who can't see at all. And then that temporary blindness can lead to permanent eye problems forever. So it could be a career ender, and it could also impact my safety and the crew's safety," said Kelly.
The laser strikes here in Austin are part of a larger national problem. The FAA has made it easier to report the incidents, and we're getting a much better count.
Last year, nationwide, there were a little more than 8,700 laser strikes on aircraft. While that's a slight decrease from a record setting year in 2021, it’s still more than what happened between 2017 and 2020.
Here is a breakdown of laser strikes reported to the FAA since 2016:
- 2022: 8,766
- 2021: 9,723
- 2020: 6,852
- 2019: 6,136
- 2018: 5,663
- 2017: 6,754
- 2016: 7,398
To help address the threat, special helmet visors have been ordered and will soon be used by StarFlight pilots.
"And they're supposed to help disperse a laser strike. They work off the red, blue and green color prism to help deflect those lasers," said LeBrecque.
Pointing a laser at an aircraft while in flight is a criminal act. In Texas, it's a state misdemeanor.
More serious cases, investigated by federal authorities, can result in felony charges. Convictions can bring fines ranging from $4,000 to $250,000 and up to five years in prison.