10/02/2014 05:39 EDT | Updated 12/02/2014 05:59 EST

Laser pointers striking aircraft, interfering with pilots in St. John's

A WestJet pilot trying to land a 737 in St. John's last week struggled as someone shone a laser pointer at the plane and into his eyes, a dangerous stunt that a pilots association says is becoming a bigger problem right across Canada.

The incident happened on Sept. 24, while the pilot was trying to land at St. John's International Airport. The laser beam reportedly struck the flight deck and the pilot looked right into it. The first officer did not look into the beam.

Despite the interference, the pilot was able to safely land the aircraft that night. Both the pilot and first officer were put on rest after the incident.

It was the fourth such case in St. John's since May, and the international Air Line Pilots Association says the problem is a growing one right across Canada.

Some pilots complain of eye irritation after looking into a laser pointed at their aircraft, and eye-related injuries can be career-ending.

"Do not point lasers at aircraft," is the message Dan Adamus, president of the association's Canadian board, had for people aiming for planes.

Growing problem

Canada-wide, 350 laser attacks on planes have been reported this year alone, or an average of about one every day, Adamus said

Shining any type of light at an aircraft is not a specific offence under the Criminal Code, but in at least one case, police successfully charged a perpetrator with the crime of mischief. Others have been prosecuted under the federal Aeronautics Act, which makes it an offence interfere with "the performance of the duties of any crew member" on a plane.

The pilots association is pushing Ottawa to toughen the laws. "We [pilots] don't want to be looking at lasers. We want to be looking at the runway to land, for obvious reasons. And we'd like to tell the public, 'Don't point lasers at aircraft in the sky. It's very dangerous,' " Adamus said.

"You're looking for the runway obviously to land. Your eyes are outside, and if you catch a bright light, your natural tendency is to look at that light."

The cheapest five-milliwatt laser pointers can be purchased for as little as $1, but they have a range of up to one kilometre and can hit planes while on approach.

Curb your curiosity

Adamus added that the pilots association wants warning labels on stronger laser pointers, including those with a higher wattage or a green light.

"The vast majority of these are curious people; lots of them are kids. They're just saying, 'Hey, will this hit that object in the sky?' and they're not aware that this is a criminal offence to do this."

He said while curiosity may be the main reason people are pointing lasers at planes, a criminal charge is a great way to cure them of that urge.

In a statement, Transport Canada said it works with local police authorities, other government departments and industry to deal with laser interference situations.

The maximum penalty under the Aeronautics Act for pointing a laser into an aircraft cockpit and interfering with a pilot is five years in prison and a $100,000 fine.