(CNN) – Pulsating light bursts into the cockpit of a plane thousands of feet in the air, filling it with seething brightness, and blinding the pilot and copilot.
What sounds like a cheap reenactment in a hokey UFO reality show has become everyday reality in the United States.
Laser attacks on aircraft occur an average of 11 times a day, the Federal Aviation Administration says.
Powerful handheld lasers are affordable and widespread, and some people are making sport of shining them up into passing aircraft. The trend seems to be catching on.
There were 3,960 such strikes reported last year, the FAA says. That’s up from 283 in 2005.
But reporting of these crimes has also caught on, which has contributed to the rise in official numbers.
- Feds launch investigation into lasers distracting military planes at Naval Station Norfolk
- Navy warns about dangers of pointing lasers at aircraft
- Virginia Beach man sentenced to 18 months for blinding Navy pilots with laser
Still, hundreds of attacks go unreported and remain uncounted.
The FBI wants them to stop and is offering reward money for tips leading to the pranksters.
And it’s making some arrests. Though it takes work to track down the source of the laser, it can be done with a helicopter, a dispatcher and squad cars.
The FBI has posted YouTube video of one such bust.
It has detained mostly teenage boys and men in their 30s, who face a possible five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
And the FBI is not the only one posting a bounty on them.
For the next two months, 11 U.S. cities and San Juan, Puerto Rico, are offering up to $10,000 for information leading to arrests.
Attacks are particularly common in New York and Los Angeles, and they often obstruct the work of the targeted pilots.
“When a laser light flashes across the cockpit, it’s about 25% brighter than a flashlight flashing in your face. So what that does is, that can cause temporary incapacitation,” said Stephen Woolery, an FBI agent pursuing laser pranksters.
But the consequences can be much worse than just annoying.
A pilot coming in for a landing at JFK two years ago radioed the tower right after an attack.
“We just got lasered up here,” he said. “Two green flashes into the cockpit. It caught the first officer’s eye.”
A direct hit can burn the cornea, and that has put pilots in the hospital.
So far, no laser strike has been known to cause a pilot to crash an aircraft.
But the FBI fears it is only a matter of time.
By Rene Marsh and Ben Brumfield