Helicopter pilot Mike Sypien vividly remembers the morning in December of 2020, when he was hit by a laser strike while flying traffic for NBC 5.
“I noticed a laser come my way right through the window,” he said. As soon as colleague Mike Lorber finished his on-air report, Sypien swung the chopper around, and began following the person who had fired the laser in those pre-dawn hours.
“Then, when he’s stuck at the traffic light, he rolled the window down, and lasered us again,” he said. "We got him with the license plate, I mean, point blank, directly right into the cockpit.”
Sadly, incidents like that one are on the rise, across the nation, and at an alarming rate, right here in Chicago.
One typical incident occurred to United Airlines Flight 2608, which left Dulles International Airport outside of Washington at 10:29 p.m. EST, the Saturday before Thanksgiving, carrying a planeload of passengers bound for Chicago. At 11:45 p.m. CST, in the key moments as the Boeing 737 maneuvered its approach for landing at O’Hare International Airport, the plane’s pilots were hit with a glaring flash of bright green light.
The laser in that case may have been a typical pointer-type device that anyone can buy online or in stores. But if you aim that laser at people’s eyes, its concentrated light can blind them temporarily, and maybe even damage their vision. At best, it can cause a temporary disorientation of pilots, which can be especially dangerous during critical moments of approach to landing.
“Clearly debilitating those pilots is something we don’t want to see and could lead to catastrophic results,” said Rebecca MacPherson, the FAA regional administrator for the Great Lakes region. “The loss of an aircraft, particularly a commercial aircraft due to a laser strike, is something that I don’t think anybody would want on their shoulders.”
There has not been a plane crash - or even a minor mishap - pinned to a laser attack. But members of the flying community say that’s no reason to minimize the danger.
“Because we haven’t lost [an aircraft], doesn’t mean the potential is not out there, for a very serious incident to happen,” said Capt. Bill Connor, a retired Delta pilot.
And NBC 5 Investigates has found it’s now getting worse, and those bigger numbers may increase the odds of something bad happening: The FAA released a study earlier this year that revealed reported laser strikes went up more than 41 percent from 2020 to 2021, nationwide.
That’s quite a rise.
But laser strikes reported in Illinois went up even more sharply last year – a steep 164 percent from 2020, when 162 strikes were reported, to 2021, which saw 428 reported strikes in all. That’s the second-highest jump among the nation’s more populous states, with Illinois just behind Florida. And those 428 laser strikes are nearly as many as the previous three years, combined.
Here’s how those strikes in Illinois look on a chart, year by year:
And here in the greater Chicago area, those strikes increased even more, going up 230 percent from 2020 to 2021, with 119 laser strikes reported locally in 2020 and 393 reported in 2021. That means the region had more than three times as many laser strikes on aircraft in 2021, as in 2020.
Here’s how those laser strikes on aircraft in the greater Chicago area look on a chart, year by year:
As an example, United Flight 2608 was not alone last Thanksgiving week in Chicago.
NBC 5 Investigates found 34 reports of local lasers strikes on aircraft, just in that one week of heavy air travel – lasers hitting everything from private planes and helicopters to giant cargo airliners, and commercial aircraft ranging from small regional jets to gigantic Boeing 747s and 787s.
“It’s a low probability event, with a potential for a very high consequence,” MacPherson noted. “I think that people don’t actually realize that this is a felony.”
That step was taken by an outraged Congress in 2012, passing a law providing for five years in prison and $250,000 in fines for a conviction associated with a laser strike on an aircraft. The FAA can also levy civil penalties up to $11,000.
Here in Chicago, NBC 5 found an abundance of reports filed by local pilots to a NASA database.
- In 2021 a pilot reported a laser strike while approaching O’Hare: “About five minutes later I experienced an intense nauseous feeling. I thought I was going to be sick.”
- In 2019, from a pilot of an Embraer regional jet who was getting ready to land at O’Hare: “We got blasted with a bright laser from the left hand side. It was really bright and I could see it on the ground, and they were aiming it towards the cockpit. … The laser [strike] caused us to get high, and we were near the tolerances for a stable approach. In normal circumstances I would have executed a go around, but with the weather on both sides of us and another possible laser, [strike] I felt the best decision was to continue. We landed a little high and a little fast but still made the touchdown zone and second high speed taxiway.”
- In 2017: “We were shined by a green ground based laser multiple times while on visual approach at Midway. The laser went into my left eye causing my eye to water and to see a green spot when I closed my eye. …. This is the third time I have encountered a laser in a flight in the last three months!”
- In 2011: As a pilot took off from O’Hare, “just as we were starting [a] turn...I saw a blossoming brilliant green flash that startled me at first and I reflexively looked away...I am convinced it was a laser illumination. We were late in our duty day but afterward my eyes felt more fatigue and irritated than normal...In summary, the incident was startling because the green flash was so bright. and I had more of a concern afterward that even a brief exposure may have caused a change to my eyes.”
- In 2010, from the pilot of a Boeing 757: “We were tagged by a green laser light several times over the period of 2-3 minutes. There was no direct eye contact and we were cautious to not look directly at the light. I was able to determine the light was coming from a very dark area approximately miles SSE. It was either in a field or a very remote house.”
- Another pilot from 2010: “Someone from the ground approximately 5 to 10 miles in front of us shined a laser beam or bright light directly into the cockpit for approximately 3 seconds...It was slightly blinding.”
- A third pilot from 2010, flying an MD-80 passenger jet: “[I] looked out to see a very bright green focused dot on the ground immediately below cockpit offset slightly right...Luckily the beam did not strike my eye directly when it panned up….”
- A fourth pilot, on descent to O’Hare at the helm of a 757 in 2010: “A flash from a green laser came though the copilot’s front windshield hitting my right eye... I...Went to an eye doctor he said that there was no damage to my eye.”
- In 2009, as a plane was taking off from O’Hare: “We were cleared for takeoff, Runway 22L…and were further cleared by ORD Tower to turn left to 360 degrees. As we pulled out of the turn I observed a series of extremely intense, and intermittent green light beams...I further observed the same light beam reflecting off my side window.”
- In 2008, two pilots helming a passenger jet “…observed a series of 5 or 6 green laser light flashes directed at the aircraft...”
- In 2007, as a pilot approached the runway to land at Chicago Executive Airport, “I was temporarily blinded by a very intense flash...I looked around and noticed that the Westin Hotel...was conducting a laser light show. The laser repeatedly flashed and pointed in direction of the ILS court putting pilots in jeopardy...This, without saying, is a very dangerous situation.”
In 18 years flying traffic in Chicago, Sypien estimates he’s been hit a dozen times.
“The end result could be absolutely tragic, and I don’t know how anybody could live with themselves if they were to do that,” he said. “And if something were to happen, it’s not just the pilot, it’s going to be somebody on the ground, someone’s house, building --- innocent people are going to get hurt if that aircraft comes down.”