One foggy night in December 2018, David Hill was trying to land a helicopter when a beam of light suddenly overwhelmed his night vision goggles.
Mr. Hill, an emergency services pilot, had been called to airlift a teenager who had been badly injured in an all-terrain vehicle crash from a village 35 miles north of Madison, Wis.
But now, Mr. Hill was temporarily blinded.
Flying about 500 feet above the ground, he tried to get his bearings. It was “like looking into the sun, and all I can see are bright spots,” he recalled.
A person had pointed a laser at his helicopter. From 2010 to 2021, close to 70,000 pilots reported similar episodes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Last year it recorded more than 9,700 cases, a record high, and a 41 percent increase from 2020.
When a laser pointer reaches a cockpit, the light can disorient or “completely incapacitate” a pilot, who on a commercial airplane could be responsible for hundreds of passengers, the F.A.A. said. Some commercial flight paths have been disrupted, causing pilots to change course or even turn around.
“What you might see as a toy has the capacity to momentarily blind the crew member,” Billy Nolen, the acting administrator of the F.A.A., said.
Though no plane has ever been reported to have crashed as a result of a laser strike, Mr. Nolen said in a phone interview that there was always a risk of a “tragic outcome.” He added, “This is not an arcade game.”
The F.A.A. said one factor for the increase in laser strikes was that lasers were becoming increasingly powerful, cheap and easy to purchase. Pilots may also be getting better at reporting the incidents, the agency said. Other observers point to a society frayed by the pandemic for the bad behavior.
“If you’re invading the safety of my airplane, then you’re an aggressor,” said Capt. Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, the union that represents the pilots of American Airlines. “These are attacks.”
It is a federal crime to knowingly aim a laser pointer at an aircraft. Offenders can be sentenced to up to five years in prison; the F.A.A. can also impose civil penalties.
In April, a Philadelphia man was sentenced to one year in prison and fined $1,000 for shining a laser at a police helicopter. In September, an Alabama man was sentenced to eight months in prison for aiming a laser at a helicopter flown by the local sheriff’s office. Also that month, a Milwaukee man was sentenced to a year of probation for pointing a laser at law enforcement aircraft during protests against police brutality in 2020.
In many instances, however, cases are difficult to prosecute because airplane pilots cannot easily spot who is pointing the laser. As of early March, there had been more than 100 incidents involving lasers pointed at aircraft around Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The F.B.I. has offered a $10,000 reward to find those responsible.
In some cases, those beaming lasers at aircraft have unwittingly led law enforcement officials directly to their location.
In February 2020, while on patrol near Vacaville, Calif., about 55 miles northeast of San Francisco, Jan Sears, a California Highway Patrol pilot, said he was struck by a laser. His aircraft had an infrared camera that helped identify the source of the light.
“It’s painful,” he said of the laser, describing symptoms that can include aching and watery eyes, headaches and blurred vision. Officer Sears said that for several days after the strike, he saw bright afterimages when closing his eyes.
“Teenagers do dumb stuff,” he said. “But when you start getting adults who do it, you start to wonder, What is your motivation?”
People who point lasers at aircraft can broadly be divided into two groups: those who are ignorant of the dangers they pose, and those who are antisocial, said Patrick Murphy, a laser safety expert who runs the website LaserPointerSafety.com.
By the accounting of Mr. Murphy, who also serves on a committee that helps advise the F.A.A. and pilots about the issue, there have been more than 100,000 such strikes globally since 2004. Overwhelmingly, he added, those charged with pointing lasers are men.
“It’s a guy thing,” said Mr. Murphy, adding that when it comes to lasers, the bigger and more powerful, the better. “It’s like having a ‘Star Wars’ light saber,” he added. “‘It’s pretty awesome: I have this beam of energy coming out of my hand.’”
The Food and Drug Administration restricts the sale of lasers that are over five milliwatts for use as pointers, but experts say that more powerful lasers are easily purchased and that the devices are often mislabeled.
Though other countries have restricted the sales of the devices, Mr. Murphy and others said that such efforts were unlikely to succeed in the United States.
He and other experts said that, for now, pilots should be educated about lasers and be prepared to respond to them. Many pilots have also started carrying protective goggles.
But Mr. Hill, the emergency services pilot, was unlucky.
That evening in 2018, he was forced to abandon the rescue. Hours later, his eyes were still burning and aching, he said. By April 2019, he was on medical leave because of problems with his vision and balance. Mr. Hill, now 58, retired in April.
Mr. Hill’s doctors told him they could not find any evidence that his issues were linked with the laser strike, and experts say that permanent injuries from laser strikes are extremely unlikely. However, Mr. Hill said he believed there was some correlation.
“I know that I experienced this laser strike,” he said. “A little over three months later, I couldn’t fly.”
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.