Police are warning people of the dangers of dazzling and distracting aircraft pilots by recklessly shining lasers at them and say they will be prosecuted under new laws.

Devon and Cornwall Police officers from the Air Operations Unit, based at HQ in Exeter , say it is “only a matter of time” before an aviation disaster is caused by people recklessly shining lasers at pilots.

The warning comes after the first person was prosecuted for an incident involving the Force under the new laws.

The Air Operations unit have released helicopter footage on YouTube of the incident in which a 19-year-old man is shown targeting the Force helicopter. The dazzle and distraction from the laser forced the pilot to abandon a search for a missing vulnerable man in Torquay.

The teenager was aiming multiple laser flashes at the helicopter.

Captain Richard Tate had to concentrate on maintaining control of the helicopter which was hovering over a residential area at approximately 2,000ft at night.

Once the aircraft was confirmed as being safe, the laser light was followed to its source by the air crew and a man identified on the helicopter’s thermal image camera.

A watch was kept on the man and a local officer on the ground was directed to his position by the police officers on the helicopter. Stephen Jones appeared before Torquay Magistrates Court on August 16 for the offence of Direct / shine a light at an aircraft in flight so as to dazzle / distract the pilot. He was convicted and received a fine of £250 and was ordered to pay £100 in costs and victim charges. The court also ordered the forfeiture and destruction of the laser.

Officers from the Air Operations Unit say this is a growing problem both locally and nationally.

Just last week, (Thursday evening) the force helicopter pilot was targeted again by someone shining a laser at the aircraft as it hovered over Torquay.

Air Observer PC Joe Mathews said: “This type of laser attack is not limited to police helicopters. We have had reports that range from airliners at 30,000ft to aircraft on final approach into our regions busiest airports. The act itself is incredibly reckless and it is only through good fortune that we have not seen a disaster.”

In 2007, there were 29 reported attacks in the UK, three years later in 2010 this has risen to over 1,400.

One crew estimates they have been affected 20 times in the last six months. The majority of these are over urban areas particularly Plymouth and Torquay.

PC Matthews added: “This type of incident is not unique to Devon and Cornwall, indeed nationally and internationally the crime is rising exponentially. This crime crosses all generations from children who get hold of these handheld lasers and don’t consider the risks to adults who should know better.

“Through education and publicity we wish to stamp out this dangerous activity however where education fails and the message doesn’t get through we will continue to utilise all our resources, including the police helicopter, to locate, identify and bring to justice anybody who endangers people in this manner.”

Devon and Cornwall Police are recommending that adults ensure they are aware if their children possess a laser and urge them to inform them of the dangers and law.