When Delta Air Lines pilot Capt. Chad Smith saw a flash out of the corner of his eye last year while on approach to Oklahoma City's airport, he thought it was lightning, but the light was green.
After it happened again, he knew what he had seen wasn't a storm but a laser beam. He landed the plane safely.
But lasers pointed at aircraft can cause temporary blindness to pilots, forcing them to take evasive action.
The laser problem is getting worse, which has the Federal Aviation Administration and the Justice Department pushing for stiffer penalties against individuals responsible for targeting planes.
The number of reported laser incidents in the United States has risen 26% from 2,836 in 2010 to 3,592 in 2011. It has more than doubled since 2009.
"Shining a laser at an airplane is not a laughing matter. It's dangerous for both pilots and passengers, and we will not tolerate it," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in a statement.
The FAA says since June last year it has started enforcement actions against 28 people charged with aiming a laser device at an aircraft and has opened "dozens of additional cases" for investigation.
The increase has led the FAA to push for stiffer civil penalties,with $30,800 the highest penalty proposed to date.
FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta said the department will "aggressively" prosecute violators under a new law that makes laser targeting a specific federal crime, and will not treat incidents with warning notices or counseling.
Officials say the spike is likely attributable to the increased availability of cheap and powerful laser pointers and to greater reporting of laser events by pilots.