WASHINGTON - Phoenix pilots have reported the second-highest number of "laser strikes" in the nation so far in 2011, a year after being tied for third.
Laser strikes - when someone shines a laser beam into a plane's cockpit - have been reported 49 times since January at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, the Federal Aviation Administration reported this week.
That trailed only Dallas-Fort Worth, which has 51 reported strikes this year.
Last year, Phoenix's 80 laser incidents tied with Mineta San Jose International Airport for third-most in the nation. Los Angeles International Airport had the most incidents at 102, followed by Chicago O'Hare's 98.
Laser strikes are a real concern to pilots, who say pointing a laser at an aircraft can seriously impair a pilot's vision and interfere with the flight crew's ability to do its job.
"People think it's funny - they don't realize how bright the laser really is," said Ryan Brown, the assistant chief instructor at Transpac Aviation Academy in Deer Valley. "I don't think they really realize the implications."
Brown knows what he's talking about: He said that he got a glancing laser strike while flying several years ago, but was lucky enough not to be disoriented or left with serious injuries. A fellow pilot instructor suffered retinal damage from a strike while teaching, which temporarily prevented him from flying or teaching.
Because of the amount of air traffic into Sky Harbor and its location amid heavily populated cities like Mesa and Tempe, laser strike incidents are more likely, Brown said.
Tucson International Airport reported 37 laser-strike incidents in 2010, according to the FAA.
The number of laser strikes has skyrocketed since 2005, when the FAA began tracking reports of laser strikes. There were 300 incidents in 2005 nationwide, rising to 2,836 in 2010.
The FAA has already recorded more than 1,100 incidents this year.
Agency officials announced this week that they would begin charging cases of laser strikes under a law that has been used to prevent interference with flight crews. Under that law, the FAA can levy fines of up to $11,000 per incident.
Congress is also considering a bill, the Securing Aircraft Cockpits Against Lasers Act of 2011, that would make laser strikes a felony for reckless endangerment.
Roger Moore, a program pilot for Honeywell's Aerospace Division in the Deer Valley area, has 37 years of flight experience, both commercial and military. He calls the FAA regulation a step in the right direction.
"If the consequences are significant, they might think twice before shining a laser in the sky," Moore said.