By Peter Jackson
Pilots temporarily blinded by lasers rarely suffer lasting damage
Aviation regulators are targeting people who shine powerful laser beams at pilots following a massive 1,700% increase in cases in the past two years.
Astronomers first used them to point out celestial objects and some teachers have embraced them as hi-tech pointing sticks, but in the wrong hands laser pens are dangerous, potentially fatal weapons.
Pressing a button releases a powerful, typically green, beam up to 600ft (183m) in the air - enough to temporarily blind pilots.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) says the "serious problem" has rapidly spread over the past two years from 29 cases in 2007 to 206 last year and up to 500 and counting this year.
A spokesman told the BBC a dazzled pilot facing other factors could find themselves in a "very, very serious incident".
He said: "Most aircraft coming in to land do so on autopilot, but if a pilot is dazzled by bright light and something else affected a plane like a gust of wind or a malfunction, they may be unable to handle it and you may have a very, very serious incident."
SOARING LASER PEN CASES
2006 - 8
2007 - 29
2008 - 206
2009 - 500
Source: Civil Aviation Authority
Pilots' union Balpa has also warned a major air disaster could be around the corner unless action is taken.
It said those shining beams were playing "Russian roulette" with the lives of hundreds of passengers.
The courts have never been busier. On Thursday Liam Coe, 21, from Hollingworth in Greater Manchester, was jailed for four months for shining a beam at a police helicopter during observations.
While on Friday, Jomir Ali, 20, from Oxford, was given 200 hours' community service for directing a laser at a police helicopter over the city, temporarily blinding the crew.
And last month 25-year-old Richard Wakeman, of Fareham in Hampshire, was given a suspended jail sentence for targeting a police aircraft.
Those caught are charged under article 73 of the Air Navigation Order for recklessly endangering an aircraft - a penalty carrying a maximum five-year jail term.
Jomir Ali caused mild eye irritation for two officers on board a police helicopter
It is the same charge used in air rage cases and, according to regulators, far from ideal.
The CAA says the sheer number of cases has prompted it to draft a new, more specific charge of shining a light at an aircraft - due to come into effect in January.
It hopes the changes will increase the number of prosecutions, make the law clearer and deter offenders.
The Department for Transport will decide the maximum sentence and is pushing the new legislation through Parliament.
Scourge of skies
Possession of the pens is not illegal and controlling their sale almost impossible given their wide availability on the internet.
A CAA spokesman said: "They're produced in America and the Far East and there's nothing anybody can do.
"Even if you made possession illegal, it wouldn't make a lot of difference. Education is the only way to proceed."
LASER PEN HOTSPOTS
Source: Civil Aviation Authority
It says the problem, first recorded in the US in the 1990s, has become a global one, affecting Canada, Europe and the Middle East.
In several Australian states, legal measures have been introduced to restrict the use and ownership of lasers after an aircraft was targeted by up to nine laser beams.
The CAA says helicopters are more vulnerable because they have one pilot and glass cabins, and have even been targeted when sent up to investigate earlier laser beam attacks on bigger aircraft.
In one UK case, a dazzled aircraft pilot was forced to circle overhead because they were not confident enough to land immediately.
The CAA says youngsters need to be educated to end a trend that has become the scourge of the skies.
"People who are doing these things have to realise it is a criminal offence not a bit of fun and very dangerous," a spokesman said.