Imagine flying a helicopter or airplane at night when someone on the ground suddenly directs a laser pointer at your Plexiglas windscreen.
The explosion of light may act like a flashbulb going off in a dark car. Everything goes black.
Or the light may refract into dozens of disorienting beams, distracting you from Job One: the safe operation of the aircraft. Either way, the lives of those in the aircraft and innocent people on the ground have been unnecessarily placed in jeopardy.
"It's a light-bomb going off in the cockpit," said Kern County sheriff's deputy and Chief Instructor Pilot Tim Caughron, who has experienced as many as a dozen of these incidents — but is aware of countless others.
"This is a huge problem," he said.
Mark Witsoe, Kern County's director of airports, said there's an average of about two reported incidents in the southern San Joaquin Valley per week — and they're not necessarily associated with the airports.
"It can interfere with the pilot's ability to continue with the flight," Witsoe said. "It's a serious distraction."
And it's a federal crime, which can carry serious prison time.
On Sept. 12, 2014, the sheriff's helicopter known as AIR-1 was providing support to ground units responding to a man armed with a gun, when the helicopter was struck twice by a powerful green laser, which appeared to track the helicopter. The pilot experienced flash blindness and eye discomfort that lasted several hours, and the helicopter was diverted from its mission.
The source of the laser was pinpointed to a commercial property and motorhome surrounded by a chain link fence on Sillect Avenue. Barry Lee Bowser, 52, who was living in the motorhome, admitted to officers that he had placed new batteries in the laser and was testing its capabilities, The Californian reported.
That test cost Bowser nearly everything. He was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison plus three years of supervised release and a $10,000 "special assessment fee."
In 2016 Bowser published a public apology, which said that the incident had ruined his life. LaserPointerSafety.com archived the sentencing information.
"I also want to educate anyone who owns a laser and might be inclined to use it the way I did: Learn from my mistake," Bowser wrote. "I am now just getting out of prison. I have paid dearly, for I have lost my girlfriend, my dog, my home, my vehicle. Everything I owned, everything I have worked for 30 years of my life, is gone. For shining a laser at a helicopter for three seconds, I lost my entire life. I am now 54 years old and I have no one and nothing but the clothes I was given when I was released from prison.”
Joseph Kinzel, a deputy district attorney at the Kern County District Attorney's office, provided statistics showing there's been an average of about two prosecutions per year through the D.A.'s office.
Kern County sheriff's Lt. Joel Swanson said the number of arrests for discharging a laser at an aircraft is not huge. There were six in 2017 and two last year.
During an incident reported last month, the offending technology was a high-powered flashlight with a strobe function, not a laser pointer.
It was about 10 p.m. on March 22, and the pilot of AIR-1 was making his landing approach when someone began flashing a light with a strobe function at the helicopter, disrupting safe operations.
Caughron was in the observer's seat.
"We aborted the landing, set up orbit, and brought the guys in," he said, referring to ground units who closed in on the 1100 block of Castaic Avenue, where several people were gathered in the backyard.
Twenty-year-old John Howten was arrested at the scene and booked for shining light at an aircraft to impair operation.
Federal prosecution may also be considered.
The man's action had the potential for a catastrophic outcome, Caughron said.
Patrick Murphy, an independent expert on the topic who runs LaserPointerSafety.com, said there have been 75,000 reports worldwide of these and similar incidents since 2004, and 50,000 of them occurred in the United States.
However, educating the public may be having a positive effect. The number of reported incidents in the United States has decreased by more than one-quarter since the numbers peaked a few years ago.
"It's still way higher than it should be," Murphy said.
Either the real number of incidents is decreasing or pilots are less likely to report every offense because in most cases they know nothing can be done.
These lasers are completely legal to own. Trying to ban them is not the answer, he said.
So far, there have been no crashes attributed to laser pointers.
But Murphy is worried that it could still happen.
So is Caughron.
"When someone points a laser at a commuter aircraft carrying 100 passengers, that person is endangering the lives of everyone on that plane — and people on the ground."
Maybe we can cut the number of incidents by sharing information, he said.
"But there will always be someone out there who doesn't care."