Laser Pointer Safety Hazards to Airplane Cockpits

A diagram displaying the position of a green light emitted from a laser pointer.

Pointing a laser light at an airplane cockpit is hazardous and can cause damage to the pilot’s eyesight. This normally occurs when a bright visible laser light causes distraction or temporary flash blindness to a pilot, during a critical phase of flight such as landing or takeoff. It can potentially cause permanent harm to a pilot’s eyes.  

Pointing a laser at an aircraft can be hazardous to pilots, and has resulted in arrests, trials, and jail sentences. It also results in calls to license or ban laser pointers. Some jurisdictions such as New South Wales, Australia have restricted laser pointers as a result of multiple incidents. [1]

A 41-year-old Washington state man who aimed a laser at two planes in November 2022 has been sentenced to prison. [2]  He was arrested for two counts of aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft and has been in custody since his bond was revoked in August 2023, according to the Department of Justice.  Harris was sentenced to eight months in prison and three years of supervised release with intensive addiction and mental health treatment following the prison sentence. 

Case records say Harris pointed a blue laser at the cockpit of a two-person personal aircraft at about 5 p.m. on Nov. 20, 2022. The laser beam damaged the pilot’s eyes, and he was unable to see his instrument panel in mid-air. After switching the instrument screen backlight on, the pilot was able to safely land the aircraft, but upon landing, he needed medical treatment for his eye injury. 

Harris pointed the laser at another plane two and a half hours later. The second plane was a four-seat aircraft flown by a student pilot.  Fortunately, the flight instructor managed to take a picture of the laser light and its origin. 

Shining a laser at an aircraft is dangerous for the pilot, those on board, and even those on the ground if the pilot cannot see to safely land.  Because of that danger, Congress made such conduct a specific federal crime 

If a laser hits the plexiglass windshield of an aircraft, the light disperses even more and can illuminate the whole cockpit, temporarily blinding pilots. In 2023, more than 12,000 laser pointing incidents occurred. Most occur in the early morning hours when the light flash is most visible. Although actual injury to the pilot occurs less than 1% of the time, it is still a hazard.  

California leads the way with reported laser pointing incidents, at nearly double the rate of those occurring in the next highest state, Texas. [3]  

It’s a federal crime to aim a laser at an aircraft. [4] People who are caught face up to five years in prison as well as civil penalties. The FAA fines are up to $11,000 per violation and $30,800 for multiple laser incidents. The agency says that in 2021, it issued $120,000 in fines for laser incidents. 

Even though laser pointers are typically rated as Class 2 more powerful laser pointers exist that can cause physical damage.  We strongly encourage people to use caution with a laser pointer and to keep them in a secure location when not in use. 


[1] New South Wales Government, Laser Pointers:

[2] DOJ, US Attorney’s Office:

[3] Spectrum News, NY1, FAA Laser Incidents:

[4] US DOT, FAA: Laser Laws & Enforcement:

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