In the past week, laser beams of unknown origins have been shined into the cockpits of seven airplanes as they were about to land at various airports around the country, including Teterboro Airport. Federal officials announced Thursday that they were initiating a major investigation to determine whether the episodes were related to terrorism.
In the latest incident, at 5:40pm on Wednesday, the cockpit of a Cessna Citation was hit with a beam as it approached the Teterboro Airport, near Hackensack, about 12 miles from Midtown Manhattan, officials said.
"All of a sudden the pilot saw his cockpit being illuminated by a laser," said Stephen Kodak, spokesman for the Newark office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "The light was flashing on and off. It went on for about 20 seconds."
The pilot landed the plane safely and immediately notified federal officials, who connected the incident to others across the country. Since Christmas, pilots have reported similar experiences while landing in Houston, Washington, Cleveland, Colorado Springs and Medford, Oregon. There were two incidents in Colorado Springs.
The pilots reported that they had been flying at low altitudes, approaching the airports, when they were momentarily disoriented by a laser beam hitting the cockpit.
Federal officials said that nobody had been hurt but that the consequences could have been disastrous.
"If both the pilot and co-pilot are blinded by one of these devices, it could cause a plane crash," said Bill Carter, a spokesman for the FBI in Washington. "But let me be clear: So far this has been more of a nuisance than anything."
Officials said they did not know what kind of lasers were being used and emphasized that the high intensity lights, usually red or green, are cheap and easy to buy; they are found on carpenters' levels, disco equipment, gun scopes and pen-size pointers that professors use on blackboards.
"These things are so commonplace you got people just pointing them up at airplanes for no reason," Carter said.
But why so many incidents in one week?
"One theory is that this might be just different people trying out Christmas gifts," said a federal official close to the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Another theory is that this is organized."
FBI officials said none of their intelligence sources had indicated a laser-based terrorist plot.
"We haven't seen any information that a terrorist group is trying to take down a domestic airliner with a laser," he said. However, even before these incidents, the FBI was concerned enough to issue a bulletin, dated Nov. 22, warning local law enforcement departments of the potential threat lasers posed to commercial aircraft. Federal officials said that even if the lasers were being aimed at planes mischievously and not with sinister intent, it is still a federal offense to interfere with a flight crew.
According to a study published by the Federal Aviation Administration in June, there have been hundreds of laser-in-the-cockpit incidents, many pre-dating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Lasers have hurt at least two pilots, one a SkyWest Airlines captain who suffered multiple flash burns to his cornea in 1996 after he was beamed by a mysterious laser over Los Angeles.