NBC15 Investigates | FAA Data: Laser incidents in Wisconsin

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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -- On Dec. 25, a UW Med Flight was unable to land at a scene where a 17-year-old boy was seriously injured in a crash in Scott Township.

Med Flight was called off after someone pointed a laser pointer toward the aircraft, affecting the pilot's ability to see. The Columbia County Sheriff's Office reported Med Flight was unable to land because of weather and was rerouted to land in the Village of Pardeeville.

"The main danger is to the crew themselves," said Ryan Wubben, a Med Flight physician. "It can result in permanent eye damage to the retina, which is the back of the eyeball where the cells are that process the light, and turn that into images in our brain. Those cells can actually be damaged by a laser itself. Therein lies the main concern."

The injured teenager was taken to the hospital via ambulance.

NBC15 Investigates looked into how often laser incidents happen in Wisconsin, and dug through thousands of incident reports through the FAA.

Wubben says pilots are used to Christmas decorations when you see them from the air, but this was a different animal.

"It appeared to the crew that they were purposely targeted by a laser that was tracking them," Wubben said. "This is something that has been encountered commonly in other parts of the country with other aviators alike.”

NBC15 Investigates tracked every laser incident recorded in Wisconsin in the Federal Aviation Administration data logs dating back to 2012. The FAA data findings include:

2018 (from Jan. 1-Nov. 10): 4,859 incidents nationwide, 24 of them recorded in Wisconsin, 3 in NBC15 viewing area

2017: 6,753 incidents nationwide, 34 of them recorded in Wisconsin, 6 in NBC15 viewing area

2016: 7,398 incidents nationwide, 22 of them recorded in Wisconsin, 5 in NBC15 viewing area

2015: 7,346 incidents nationwide, 39 of them recorded in Wisconsin, 10 in NBC15 viewing area

2014: 3,894 incidents nationwide, 19 of them recorded in Wisconsin, 7 in NBC15 viewing area

2013: 3,960 incidents nationwide, 12 of them recorded in Wisconsin, 4 in NBC15 viewing area

2012: 3,482 incidents nationwide, 18 of them recorded in Wisconsin, 2 in NBC15 viewing area

Of the incidents in the NBC15 viewing area:
2018: 1 in Rock County, 2 in Dane County
2017: 3 in Rock County, 3 in Dane County
2016: 2 in Rock County, 3 in Dane County
2015: 3 in Rock County, 7 in Dane County
2014: 3 in Rock County, 3 in Dane County, 1 in Dodge County
2013: 3 in Rock County, 1 in Dane County
2012: 2 in Dane County

“This has always been something of concern. We’ve heard of this happening to other flight crews out there, and also it’s happened to airline pilots as well. It’s almost in the same vein as drones. Drones, as with Gatwick in London last week, are a big concern, but we haven’t necessarily had that issue here. But it is something within our community that we are always aware of.” Wubben said.

Laser strikes on aircraft continue to increase each year, according to the FAA. In 2017, the FAA received 6,754 reports of laser strikes on aircraft. This is a 250 percent increase since FAA started tracking laser strikes in 2010.

It is a federal crime to aim a laser pointer at an aircraft. It is punishable by a fine of up to $250,000 and five years in prison. Wisconsin state law also prohibits obstructing emergency or rescue crews, according to a Columbia County Sheriff's Office press release.