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Nearly 42 reports of aircrafts targeted by lasers in metro Detroit in 2022

Jan 15, 2024

DETROIT (WXYZ) — A laser light incident targeting an MSP helicopter Tuesday appears to have been intentional and malicious. What most people fail to realize is how numerous and dangerous such incidents are. In fact, in 2021 there were nearly 10,000 such laser incidents reported by pilots.

Kenny Winn used to work for Max Flight Helicopters out of Detroit. Now he works for a medivac emergency medical services company transporting patients with a flight medic and a flight nurse. They recently had a scary situation.

"I had a medical crew. We were responding to a scene and it was about 11 o’clock at night," explained Winn. "I noticed a green laser light. I was being lazed. It hit me right in the eye. That's what got my attention. My medic looked out the right window, he caught it in the eyes."

He explained what makes being in a helicopter particularly problematic.

"We’re surrounded by glass. We don't have much barrier between us and a laser coming into the cockpit of a helicopter. That's the benefit of a helicopter. It has great visibility. But it also lets laser lights in," said Winn.

As someone who has been there, he knows what it feels like to get a laser shined right in the eyes.

"It can be very dangerous for the pilot. It can disorient the pilot," Winn explained.

He says fortunately, the pilot can rely on the autopilot system if needed. Still, he doesn't think most people understand how serious of an act it is targeting an aircraft with a laser.

"It is a federal crime. I don't think most people realize that," said Winn.

In 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) received 9,723 reports of laser from pilots, a 41% increase from 2020.

There were 42 reports last year in the metro Detroit area alone.

Patrick Murphy is a laser safety expert who runs the website

He explained what the public doesn't understand.

"I don't think they understand that aiming at an aircraft is different than playing with your cat. It's not a little dot. It's not going to be on the underside of the aircraft so that you’re not interfering with the pilot. It is most likely, if the plane is coming towards you going to be in the pilot's eyes," said Murphy.

Maybe some believe it's just a "little" laser.

"Here's a cat pointer, little tiny thing you buy for a few dollars at a pet store," demonstrated Murphy. "But this can actually be a distraction to pilots two miles away."

Winn said in his case, he was flying just 500 feet above the ground.

Fortunately, as a laser travels a distance, the power is diminished. The main risk is a temporarily blinding light.

"You have a bright light, it is interfering with the pilot. If the power is enough, it's going to completely block the pilot's view and can cause a flash blindness after image meaning they can't now see for a minute or so until the after image clears."

According to the FAA, people who shine lasers at aircraft face fines of $11,000 per violation, up to $30,800 for multiple incidents, and even years in federal prison.

"I also think they don't understand that the police, this is like an arrow pointing right back to you," explained Murphy. "They have all the cameras and things that can see that beam going right back down to you. They call the ground units as they did in the Detroit case and the ground units will be there in a matter of minutes."

Winn says remember those who are already putting so much on the line.

"We’re assuming a large risk anyway getting airborne to go help somebody," said Winn. "I don't want to be taken out of my job permanently because someone on the ground is playing around not realizing what they’re doing."