The FBI would like to strongly remind the public about the seriousness of this crime. It used to be prosecuted under the general heading of "interfering with the operation of an aircaft" but in February, it became its own specific crime punishably by up to $250,000 in fines and five years in prison.
The FAA says it was a Skywest commuter jet and a Virgin America Airbus 320 that reported having lasers pointed into their cockpits, a bright light, potentially blinding to the cockpit crew. The Skywest pilot saw it coming and alerted air traffic control. "San Francisco, that laser is almost right underneath us now," he can be heard saying in radio communications.
"It probably was just a little pinpoint laser bought in an office supply store that you use for a lot of Power Point presentations, but what happens is that pinpoint spreads out as it gets up higher and farther away, and what may seem like a very faint light to you, in a cockpit, gets almost blinding," explained SFO spokesman Mike McCarron.
The FAA says at 10:25 Thursday night, Skywest Flight 6269 reported the laser at about 4,000 feet altitude and 14 miles east-southeast of Palo Alto. Just four minutes later, Virgin America Flight 211 reported a laser at the same altitude about 13 miles east of Palo Alto.
Lasers directed at cockpits are dangerous under any circumstances, but landing and takeoff are the worst possible times, with other aircraft ahead, behind, and on the ground. "It's kind of like getting on and off the freeway. That moment is the most critical part. Once you get on the freeway, its easy to drive, but getting on and off, that's the tricky part. It's the same thing about coming in and out of the airport," McCarron told ABC7 News.
Australian tourist John Singh was at SFO Friday. He says he often hears news reports of similar incidents back home. "As the planes coming to land in Sydney, they point the lasers at the planes," he said, "They're idiots."
After they got the call Thursday night, the Menlo Park Police Department went out looking for the lasers. They say they would have used the CHP helicoper, but it was unavailable at the time. They say they will be out again over the next couple of nights patrolling the Dumbarton Bridge area.