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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Laser Dangers

by Frances Fiorino

Lasers are part of our daily life they help doctors perform precision surgery, scan items at supermarket, play our music. Yet lasers have the potential to be a deadly flight hazard. An individual shining a laser on an aircraft in flight places the aircraft and its passengers in peril and faces criminal prosecution and hefty civil penalties. So what’s behind the increase in aviation laser incidents?

Since 2005, when FAA put a laser reporting system in place, the number of incidents in the United States increased from 300 in 2005, to 1,527 in 2009, to 2,836 in 2010 and last year climbed to 3,592. The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority reported 1,909 incidents in 2011, up from 20 in 2005.

How does a laser light become a flight hazard? A person on the ground with a laser pointer decides to direct a laser beam at an aircraft. The “lasing” incidents occur mostly at night, near an airport, when aircraft are at low altitude. The flight crew, whose eyes have adapted to night and subdued cockpit lighting, sees flashes of light the effect is similar to a camera flashbulbs popping or seeing hi-beam headlights of an oncoming car. And it takes several seconds, sometimes minutes, to recover.

The International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA) April 2012 updated briefing, “The Effects of Laser Illumination of Aircraft,” describes laser events at low altitude as “extremely dangerous” because of the resulting temporary vision loss (glare, flash blindness and afterimages). Laser illuminations can distract, disorient and debilitate a pilot. An event occurring during a critical phase of flight, such as landing, can lead to catastrophic results if the pilot cannot see instruments to remain on course or maneuver in a heavy traffic environment.

A “lasing” event occurring during a critical phase of flight, such as landing, can lead to catastrophic results if the pilot cannot see instruments to remain on course or maneuver in a heavy traffic environment.

FAA has collected data on 3,000 reported illumination events during a 20-year period from both military and civil sectors, and which include law enforcement and medevac flights. The adverse physiological effects reported include visual pain and loss of depth perception as well as operational problems including aborted landings. No aircraft accidents have been directly associated with lasers but data support the view that lasing poses a potential risk to flight safety.

FAA notes several factors that have led to the increase in laser incidents. Powerful lasers are easily obtainable at low cost. In addition, laser light shows at resorts, sporting events and the like have proliferated in the past 10 years. But the main concern to IFALPA is the deliberate use of laser pointers by individuals on the ground. And most of the reported incidents were deliberate strikes on aircraft on final approach at major airports.

According to FAA, 70 percent of most incidents occurred between 2,000 ft. and 10,000 ft. AGL and between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m., and most illuminations involve handheld green laser pointers (91 percent). The human eye, when adapted to the dark, is very sensitive to the green laser wavelength, and the green laser may appear as much as 35 times brighter than the red laser of equal power. A 5mW laser can cause glare up to 3,700 ft. The longer the exposure time, the more dangerous the results but fortunately, the aircraft’s speed and use of handheld pointers combine to reduce the exposure time. Retinal damage due to laser exposure is rare, according to FAA.

IFALPA and civil aviation authorities recommend several ways of dealing with laser strikes: First, be aware of operating in areas where lasing has been reported or is likely to occur. Be prepared to take evasive action such as looking away and shielding eyes. The non-exposed flightcrew member should be prepared to take the controls. Turn up cockpit lights. Maneuver the aircraft, air traffic conditions permitting, to avoid laser beam.

FAA, as well as civil aviation authorities of other countries, stress that pilots should report the incidents as soon as possible to the air traffic control facility. On-ground witnesses to lasing events are encouraged to report them to aviation authorities, including the FBI, to apprehend violators. In the U.S. “lasing” an aircraft is a crime under the Code of Federal Aviation Regulations 14 CFR 91.11, which prohibits interfering with a flight crew operating an aircraft. Since June 2011, FAA has taken enforcement action against 28 individuals charged with aiming a laser at an aircraft and has opened investigations of dozens of other cases. In May, FAA reiterated its anti-laser position and directed the agency’s investigators and lawyers to pursue the stiffest sanctions for violations. The U.K. also has deemed it a criminal offense.

In addition, in 2011, FAA called for stiff civil penalties — up to $11,000 per violation — for anyone deliberately shining a laser at an aircraft.

A few examples:

➤ A man who lased a Virginia Beach, Va., police helicopter in January 2012 is facing a 20-year prison sentence.

➤ In 2009, a California judge sentenced a man to three years in federal prison for shining a laser at a law enforcement helicopter operating near Sacramento International Airport. Ironically, the police helicopter crew was investigating an earlier lasing report by an airline pilot.

So please get involved, report any incidents to aviation authorities and help raise awareness among flight crews and private citizens about the laser threat to air safety.

Frances Fiorino, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, has more than 20 years’ experience as an aviation journalist with major publications. She holds a private pilot license and covers air safety and simulation/training issues in the transport and general aviation sectors.

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