Washington (CNN) -- Delta Air Lines pilot Capt. Chad Smith was flying at 6,000 feet approaching Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City in March when he saw a flash out of the corner of his eye. It looked like lightning, he said, except for its color -- green.
"I think we just got hit by a laser," his first officer told him.
The green light again illuminated the plane's cockpit, confirming the crew's suspicions, and making Smith "Exhibit A" in a Federal Aviation Administration effort to highlight the potential dangers of people who intentionally target aircraft with laser beams.
At a news conference Wednesday, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt tried to educate the public about the danger of pointing lasers at aircraft and announced the agency would seek civil penalties of up to $11,000 for people caught targeting planes with lasers.
"People think these are toys. They are not toys," said Babbitt, a former airline pilot. "They are very dangerous and they pose a great danger. They can be medically harmful to pilots."
The number of pilots reporting being targeted by lasers has grown steadily since the FAA began keeping records in 2005, and nearly doubled last year to 2,836, up from 1,527 the previous year, the FAA said.
Officials say the increase is likely attributable to the increased availability of cheap and powerful laser pointers, to the introduction of green lasers which are more easily seen, and to increased reporting of laser events by pilots. Because there have been relatively few prosecutions for pointing lasers, officials say they do not have a profile of a typical laser attacker. But they said laser attacks are probably done for amusement, perhaps by people who are unaware of the potential danger.
"What really struck me about the laser was the intensity of it," Smith told reporters. "It's very striking how intense and how keen the beam is. More importantly were the 142 passengers that we carried behind us, completely oblivious to what was going on up front."
Smith's aircraft landed without incident, but the outcome could have been "disastrous" if the laser had blinded the crew "when we were much closer to the ground, when the auto-pilot is not normally engaged, (and) when the flight crew work load is at its highest," he said.
No arrests have been made, but the case is still under investigation, Smith said.
Administrator Babbitt said the FAA is relying on a new interpretation to an existing regulation to go after people who point lasers at planes. The rule prohibits people from interfering with a flight crew performing its duties.
Officials concede it is difficult to locate people with lasers, but note that it has been done in some instances, sometimes with the help of police helicopters. In addition, some people are repeat offenders, making arrests easier.
"Once we zoom in on a location, we'll pursue them with all the tools that we have and impose fines on them," Babbitt said.
"Our top priority is protecting the safety of the traveling public," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "We will not hesitate to take tough action against anyone who threatens the safety of our passengers, pilots and air transportation system."
day after the GOP-controlled House of Representatives overwhelmingly rejected a measure to raise the national debt ceiling without any accompanying deficit or spending reduction provisions.A bill that would criminalize purposefully aiming a laser device at aircraft is currently pending in Congress.
Last year, Los Angeles International Airport recorded 102 laser events -- the highest number of laser events in the country for a single airport. Chicago O'Hare International Airport was a close second, with 98 reports, and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport tied for third with 80 each.
So far this year, the Phoenix and Dallas-Fort Worth areas each have recorded more than 45 laser events, the FAA said. The Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Houston areas each have recorded more than 30 laser events.
The FAA first began paying close attention to the issue in the mid-1990s. The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates lasers, required outdoor laser light show operators to notify the FAA of proposed laser operations and resolve any objections that the FAA may have.
In 2005, the FAA created a formal reporting system to collect information from pilots. During the first year in operation, nearly 300 reports were collected.