Lasers, Lasers, Everywhere

UPDATE: February 15, 2016

LASERS ARE BACK in the news again. This time, on Sunday, a Virgin Atlantic Airways jet bound for New York was forced to return to London after the first officer was reportedly injured by a laser strike in the cockpit.

We’ve been dealing with this phenomenon for over a decade now, but the number of incidents has been increasing. Not unlike the controversy surrounding drones, its mostly a matter of proliferation. Just as there are lot more drones around, there are a lot more laser pointers in the hands of a lot more people than there used to be. They’re small, inexpensive, and easy to obtain. And as with drones, users of these devices aren’t necessarily aware of their potential hazard. Many hobbyists see their lightweight drones as all but harmless, not realizing just how dangerous a high-speed impact with an aircraft could be. Similarly, it’s only human nature, I suppose, to direct your laser at something passing overhead. What’s the harm?

Well, laser pointers might be small, but they are able to cause temporary blindness and serious eye injury, even from a considerable distance, the ramifications of which are pretty obvious if the target is an airline crew during a critical phase of flight. Hitting two pilots squarely in the face through the refractive, wraparound windshield of a cockpit would be very difficult and entail a substantial amount of luck, and a temporarily or partially blinded crew would still have the means to stabilize a climbing or descending airplane. Still, it’s unsafe, and just a stupid thing to be doing.

The problem, by and large, isn’t one of nefarious intent. It’s one of not knowing better. And for those who do know better, it’s recklessness. And as with the drones issue, the solution isn’t going to be some elaborate technological fix or attempting to regulate users into compliance, though there’s certainly room for imposing stiffer criminal penalties against abusers. It comes down to awareness, and ordinary common sense. In the immortal words of Gordon Gano: Don’t shoot, shoot, shoot that thing at me!

Regulators and airlines both have been taking the problem seriously. Here in the U.S., any laser strike must be immediately reported to air traffic control. The FAA’s website includes online forms through which pilots can submit the details of an incident.

One thing to be happy about is that people haven’t been making a presumptive link to terrorism. For starters, actually downing a jet with a laser would be highly difficult, and terrorists don’t waste their time or resources on such low-probability schemes.

It wasn’t always this way. In 2005 I did a series of columns for the website Salon covering a rash of laser incidents. When I go back and read those columns, it’s astonishing to recall just how paranoid many people were. This was more than three years after the terror attacks of 2001, but apparently we were still on hair-trigger alert.

In December of 2005 the FBI and Department of Homeland Security released a memo stating that terrorists had explored the viability of deploying high-intensity lasers as weapons. Around this time pilots began calling in an unusual number of laser hits. Immediately certain people assumed the worst. In fact the FBI/DHS memo was one of 160 bulletins released during a two-year span, and cited nothing more than terrorists “exploring” laser attacks. Just as they’d explored the use of nuclear weapons, biological weapons, guns, knives, car bombs, plastic explosives, and so forth. DHS itself admitted to having no specific information. But that didn’t stop the scaremongering.

“It’s not some kid,” said Paul Rancatore, speaking in a news story about the laser reports from pilots. Rancatore was deputy chairman of the security committee at the Allied Pilots Association, the union representing crews at American Airlines. “It’s too organized,” he warned.

“It sounds like an organized effort to cause airline accidents,” echoed Loren Thompson, professor of military technology at Georgetown University, speaking in the same article. “What we’re talking about is a fairly powerful [laser]. That’s not the sort of thing you pick up at a military surplus store.”

In fact it almost certainly was “some kid,” and the types of devices Mr. Thompson was referring to were, and remain, readily for sale — the kinds of commercial lasers frequently employed in concerts, light shows, civilian construction work, and numerous other industries. All along, Federal guidelines have restricted the use of these things, but such rules aren’t easily enforced.

And on and on it went, this pandering to overanxious imaginations. The t-word had been spliced into the very DNA of our collective societal psyche. Any anomaly that was potentially harmful and not instantly solvable was apt to be viewed under the dark cloak of “terrorism” — a toxic pathology that, while maybe not as potent as it once was, has polluted our politics and culture ever since. Here in 2016 we’re no longer quite so hysterical, but too often, still, we choose an emotional response over one of reason and good sense.

As a pilot, I’ve never had a laser encounter, but I remember something that occurred one night in the early 1990s, during an approach into Newark. It was a high-intensity spotlight, not a laser, but the effect was similar. I was captain of an old Beech-99, a fifteen-seater. We were skirting the lower edge of Manhattan along the Hudson River, when a wayward (perhaps intentionally so) beam from a light show atop the World Trade Center — ironically enough, I guess — caught and tracked our turboprop briefly, filling the cockpit and cabin with a fiery incandescence.


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32 Responses to “Lasers, Lasers, Everywhere”
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  1. Jay Hughes says:

    @ Dan Ullman:

    You comments are right on – conference pointers are very low emitters.

  2. Jay Hughes says:

    If Terrorists (aka Freedom Fighters) really wanted to do damage they would use green lasers or, for the really dedicated, Infra-Red lasers.

    The ‘blackboard’ lasers, although appearing bright, are quite ‘eye-safe’ at around 10 feet away. Besides, the optics are designed to focus on near-in objects 10-20 feet away. Entertainment lasers, used as supplied and instructed, are also eye-safe.

    My employer builds Dazzlers, sold to the military of non-aligned nations, which can selective emit Green, Blue and Red light. Without a doubt the Green are the most ‘blinding’ – I know, I design laser equipment.

    It is possible to buy, off the shelf, lasers capable of emitting 10 Watts, in the USA. 10 Watts is a very useful power for military operations and can be battery powered.

    Nothing in the scientific papers actually describe the “eye injuries” suffered by pilots – everything is against a pilot sustaining damage, starting with the bodies natural protection of blinking.

  3. Jeff Guinn says:

    I have been lased seven times: once into Oakland, and another half dozen times into Paris CDG. On one arrival, we were lased twice.

    So far, no big deal, other than the annoyance.

  4. markus baur says:

    AVHerald is a pretty serious website that is used my many aviation professionals and fas, collecting accident and incident reports form all over the world – they usually have MUCH faster and MUCH more accurate reporting on accidents then any regualr media site .. whenever there is an accident its worth looking this site up ..

    that said – look at the results for a search for laser incidents

    this shows a good number of such incidents / accidents … and yes – probability says that one day they will catch the pilots in a moment, when they will no longer be able to do a proper response to being lasered

  5. frank says:

    The sun, near the horizon is just a little brighter than a laser pointer… LED laser pointers causing blindness at more than a few hundred yards is all nonsense. Close up it has the same effect as a photoflash. A photoflash can cause retinal damage.

    • Dan Ullman says:

      A photo flash cannot cause retinal damage unless you are an extremely unlucky person. The sun, being something we and all life have grown up, isn’t an issue.

      The odd thing about this is that folks are defending the right to shoot lasers at planes. It is likely a bad idea.

      • frank says:

        You can ignite a match with the energy from a single photoflash at a distance of an inch… I’ve done it and was amazed.

      • No. It is not “folks defending the right to shoot lasers at planes”- a disingenuous comment at best.

        It is folks watching the whole craziness over so-called “security” simply grow out of control.

        Show me a single case where a pilot was hurt. A single one.

  6. Alan says:

    I recall during the civil unrest in Egypt and there were mass protests outdoors. The government sent helicopters to monitor the situation (not sure what action they could take). Those aircraft were lit up with hundreds of laser pointers from the crowd below with the intent of making them useless. I am not sure if it worked or not.

    You could probably find footage of this in a news network archive. But if you are wondering if using handheld lasers against aircraft is a widely contemplated act and if it has been ever done — there’s your example.

    • Stephen R. Stapleton says:

      If I may suggest, you example rather proves my point. “Hundreds” of people aimed laser pointers at an aircraft at the same time and, as one article put it, “No reports have surfaced of any technical failures for the helicopter.” I suspect if hundreds of people do something to the same aircraft at the same time and nothing bad happens, one person is unlikely to have any effect.

      Love the algebra practice.

      x – 4 = 3
      x – 4 + 4 = 3 + 4
      x – 0 = 3 + 4
      x = 3 + 4
      x = 7

      • Daniel Ullman says:

        You are looking at this wrong. It does not matter how many people are pointing lasers at a plane. 75,000 lasars could be pointed at an aircraft. The only one that matters, and likely the only one reported, is the one that reaches the cockpit window.

        No one is suggesting that small, lower power lasers are a threat to airlines in general. What can cause a problem is when some twit can cause a problem with the folks flying the plane.

  7. Stephen R. Stapleton says:

    Are there ANY documented cases of ANYONE, let alone an aircraft pilot, losing their eyesight, even temporarily, from a readily-available, cheap laser pointer? I am curious and spent some minor time Googling about to find the answer and couldn’t. The danger here seems right up there with the ban on cell phones some how crashing hospital equipment.

    I submit the time and effort spent on this issue would have a higher return spent on highway safety.

    • Rod says:

      Yeah, until the day a plane goes down because of it (maybe because it was the last straw among other problems).
      If the Brits are handing out six-month jail sentences for the mere attempt to have blinding effect, something tells me there’s something to it.

      • Stephen R. Stapleton says:

        If some government is handing out jails sentences is going to be our standard for deciding the seriousness of something problem, then we are in big trouble. Singapore hands out a jail sentence for selling chewing gum on the third conviction (first time is a $500 fine). Uganda gives gay people life sentences for being gay.

        Somewhere, some government is punishing someone for something stupid. You can count on it. The only article I could find about a pilot having a problem with a laser was a military grade laser and he wasn’t flying a plane at the time. I think the problem is an urban myth, like airlines keeping the oxygen level low so passenger are more compliant.

    • GLT says:

      @Stephen R. Stapleton:

      Absolutely there are:

      Only from 16.5m away (probably at the back of the bus), but yes, this was a standard handheld laser pointer. What is also interesting is that the culprit was able to repeatedly hit the bus driver’s eye on a moving bus via the rear view mirror. The driver had damage that persisted for 6 months.


  8. Guy Hamilton says:

    Patrick – not about lasers but about ‘pilots’.
    I am familiar with your view of news stories that refer to ‘the pilot’ of an airliner as if there were only one. I agree with you completely.
    Have you, however, noticed that most stories about the Russian Su-24 shot down over Turkey/Syria refer to the ‘pilots’ or the ‘two pilots’, even though the second crew member is not a pilot of the aircraft but is (US terminology) a ‘weapon systems officer’?
    So, as far as the news media are concerned, airliners have only one pilot, even although in fact they have two or more, whereas military fighter-bombers have 2 pilots, even although in fact they only have 1.
    The news media have another perfect, zero score for accuracy.

    • John O'D says:

      I noticed that too, here in the UK press. I put it down to a younger generation of reporters. Boys of my age, who grew up in awe of their parents’ experience of World War 2, would know who does what in a plane, not to mention the difference between a destroyer and a battleship, or a tank and an armoured car – two other common errors. (I have to confess, I’m a retired editor, so getting these things right is pretty much second nature to me!)

      • Guy Hamilton says:

        Exactly! I’ve noticed the same errors. A friend and I formulated what we think must be current editors’ rules –
        All warshipe are battleships.
        All armoured vehicles are tanks.
        All construction machines are bulldozers. (This one came up after a string of rampages in Israel using stolen ‘bulldozers’. Photographs showed that not one of them was a bulldozer. All that we saw were ‘tractor loader/backhoes’, often inaccurately called, in the UK, ‘JCBs’.)
        You can add, ‘all passenger vessels are cruise ships’. I’ve seen Titanic referred to as a ‘cruise ship’.
        The ‘younger generation of reporters’ clearly needs more competent editing.

        • Rod says:

          But editors (and I’m one too) cost money. And cutting posts is the solution to everything, isn’t it. So it would be pretty surprising if editing were getting any more competent. Just more rushed.

        • Liz says:

          It’s not inaccurate. It’s a genericized trademark, like Americans using “Kleenex” for tissues.

  9. Furloaded says:

    I’ve been lasered twice in the cockpit, both times on about a 5 mile final. It lights up the cockpit a lot. At a minimum it’s distracting, at worst you can lose your eye sight, at least temporarily.
    Both times it came from the side from about 2 to 3 miles away. On the second event I was looking out the window when we got hit and the beam hit me right in the eye. It was only a split second and only in my left eye, but I was completely blinded by it in that eye. My vision did return eventually, but I had a burn on my retina similar to when you shine a bright flashlight right into your eye. It lasted more than one day but eventually it went away. So this BS about the beam being scattered and too weak needs to be ignored. These green laser are more than a nuisance and need to be stopped.

  10. Skeptical says:

    “laser pointers…are able to cause temporary blindness and serious eye injury, even from a considerable distance”

    I’d like to see the math that supports that assertion.

    Handheld laser pointers use laser diodes and optics to create their beam. They are not precision devices and typically have significant beam divergence angles that cause their beam intensity to spread out and fall off significantly with distance.

    One other reason we know this to be true is how nearly impossible it would be to hit the eye of a pilot in a moving aircraft for any significant length of time from thousands or tens of thousands of feet away with a handheld device creating a pencil thin beam of light.

    This is only remotely possible because the laser spot has ballooned out to dozens or hundreds of feet at this distance. They also are battery operated and are not high powered lasers.

    I can’t see how the math supports ‘serious eye injury’ at the distances we’re talking about.

    If by ‘temporary blindness’ you mean the same thing that happens when an oncoming car’s high beams dazzle me, then I’ll agree with you on that. But that applies to any bright light, and nobody’s screaming about kids with million candlepower spotlights downing aircraft on final approach.

    • Rod says:

      What are the chances of your wee drone colliding with an airliner, even if you actually try to make it do that? Not very great. And yet …

      I’m sure the moment anyone starts beaming a “million candlepower spotlight” from the airport fence straight up the final approach slope, lots of people will start screaming about it.

  11. Anonymous says:

    “The problem isn’t one of nefarious intent. It’s one of not knowing better.”

    Patrick, the problem is indeed of nefarious intent. People who commit this crime are sadistic. You cannot reason with psychopaths. Psychopathy is not a form of mental illness; it is a personality type, which does not and cannot change.

    * * *

    Michael Spencer, in July 2014 a lying female psychopath in San Mateo, California committed this crime and caused a pilot to see spots in his eye. (Subsequently, it was sentenced to mental health “counseling.” It should have been sentenced to life without parole or to the chair, imo.)

  12. I get that lasers can be a problem so don’t miss the intent of my question: has there ever been an incident where a pilot was blinded, or hurt? or a case where a landing, take off, or other operation of an airliner was in some way compromised?

    It’s got to be so incredibly difficult to hit the cockpit of an airliner that the incidence must be small. The windows, after all, are on the top half of the fuselage, and they are made more difficult to see when a plane is landing or taking off, times when the angle of attack places the cockpit higher than the rest of the aircraft.

    Are we over-reacting here, or is this questioner simply misinformed?

  13. TJ says:

    I recall a recent JetHead blog, and he seems to feel differently to you about lasers.

  14. Rod says:

    As a passenger I was ‘blinded’ by a laser one night three years ago on final approach to Toronto. I was able to give a pretty good description of where it was coming from since, before connecting with my retina, I could see it frantically flipping back and forth from a parking lot.
    We aren’t taking “Terrorism” of course, but I don’t think it’s necessarily such innocent underestimation either. It’s malicious vandalism.