On July 1, 2015, pilots landing at Phoenix Deer Valley Airport reported being targeted with a green laser. The Phoenix police set up a sting by sending a police helicopter to fly a pattern similar to an aircraft on approach. The helicopter drew laser fire from a 25-year-old male suspect. Police officers located and arrested the suspect and charged him with four counts of endangerment: two for the police helicopter occupants, and two for the pilots of a fixed wing aircraft. The police pilots reported having headaches and seeing spots due to the laser exposure.
At Canadian Forces Base Greenwood in Nova Scotia, a Canadian Armed Forces C-130 Hercules four-engine turboprop aircraft was taxiing for departure when a laser was aimed into the cockpit. The crew decided not to operate the flight. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police initiated a search but were unsuccessful in locating a suspect.
Just a few months ago on May 1, 2019, a 37-year-old man from Columbus, Ohio was sentenced to 30 days in jail and given one year of probation for aiming a laser at a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 with 61 passengers on board. The suspect also aimed a green laser at a police helicopter during the same night. He was indicted on four counts of interfering with the operation of an aircraft and pleaded guilty. He had purchased the laser for $20 and aimed it at the aircraft to see how far it would go. He called it, quote, “a boneheaded mistake.”
In addition to the jail time and probation, the suspect is required to make a public service announcement telling people not to aim lasers at aircraft.
I’ve experienced two laser strikes. Once in Toronto and one in Mexico north of Zihuatanejo. Each time, the laser struck the aircraft but not us. In Toronto, the laser hit the ceiling of the cockpit. The controller in Toronto notified aircraft behind us and police met us after landing.
This podcast will dive into the laser strike (sometimes called laser illumination) occurrence. I will discuss some background history, prevention measures, what to do if you are hit, and what to do after.
Handheld lasers have become common place due to their relative low cost, and some users don’t fully understand their abilities to project light at great distances. Much of this podcast is taken from the FAA document titled, “Laser Hazards in Navigable Airspace,” which is written in a format similar to my podcasts, which is question-and-answer oriented.
The word ‘laser’ is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. A laser itself is defined as a device that produces an intense, directional, coherent beam of visible or invisible light.
Reports of illumination events have increased steadily over the past few years. This increase may be due to heightened awareness of the problem by flight crew members, the introduction of an authorized reporting process, and the increased availability of high-output, handheld laser devices.
Has an aircraft ever crashed due to a laser strike?
No accidents have been attributed to the illumination of crew members by lasers. Due to the debilitating effects of a laser strike, the potential exists; therefore, Regulators are trying to educate the public.
FAA studies have generated the following statistics:
- Almost 70% of all laser incidents have occurred when the aircraft is between 2,000 and 10,000 feet above ground level.
- 51% occur from August to December or in the last five months of the year.
- Sunday is the most likely day of the week for an aircraft to be illuminated by a laser, followed by Friday and Saturday.
- 70% occur between 7:00pm and 11:00pm.
- Reports indicate that over 90% of all aircraft illuminations are green in color, followed by red, with the remainder being other colours or combinations of colours.
So, what can happen as a result of a laser strike?
From an Operational point of view, laser radiation can distract a pilot and cause temporary impairment.
Physiological effects include an increased sensitivity to light, headaches, eye pain, irritation, and an inability to focus.
In rare instances, physiological effects can last for a few days but usually disappear after a few minutes or hours.
Visual effects could include flash blindness or afterimage, which can linger for several minutes or even a few hours.
Permanent eye damage is unlikely due to many factors, including the fact that the majority of incidents last for seconds and exposure time is limited by the eye’s blink response. Also, the distance between the laser itself and the flight crew member can be very far. Furthermore, as a laser travels through the atmosphere, its radiant energy dissipates. This is called atmospheric attenuation.
The FAA conducted trials in a flight simulator, and what they found is that adverse visual effects from laser exposure are especially debilitating when the eyes are adapted to the low-light of a cockpit at night. Think of the situation where you are driving a car down a dark country road and an oncoming car does not turn off their high-beam headlights. Recovery of your eyesight takes a few seconds and could take minutes.
Brief exposure to laser light can result in startle, distraction, and/or disorientation. More serious visual impairments include glare, flash blindness, afterimages, and, in rare cases, ocular injury.
The FAA reports that the three most commonly reported physiological effects associated with laser exposures are: glare, flash blindness and afterimage.
- Glare is the obscuration of an object in a person’s field of vision due to a bright light source located near the same line of sight. Say you are looking at the approach lighting and you are struck by a laser that originates from that same area. You will have difficulty re-acquiring the approach lighting.
- Flash blindness is a visual interference effect which blocks the area of the eye that was exposed. It can persist after the source of illumination has stopped. This is similar to looking at a camera flash.
- Afterimage is a reverse contrast shadow image left in the visual field after an exposure to a bright light. If you look at the sun and then look away, the image of the sun can still be seen in your vision. This can be distracting and may persist for several minutes.
In the News
Okay, aviation professionals, let’s change gears for a moment. “In the News” is a segment of the podcast where I talk about other happenings in aviation. ADS-B will be a requirement in the US in most controlled airspace beginning January 1, 2020. Australia requires ADS-B for operating at or above Flight Level 290. In Hong Kong, ADS-B is required for all operations at or above FL290 on certain airways. In Europe, ADS-B will be required after June 7, 2020 for aircraft over 5700 kilograms and flying faster than 250 knots and on an IFR flight plan. There will be some exemptions for older aircraft in Europe. Mexico has ADS-B rules starting January 1, 2020 as well.
Like I said, in the US, your aircraft must be fitted, and your crews should also be trained. Depending on your Regulator, training requirements may include
- Operating procedures
- MEL procedures
- ADS-B specific phraseology
- System description
- Flight planning procedures and codes
- Use of ADS-B during emergency procedures
- Data source errors, this could be a position error due to a GPS failure
- Incident reporting procedures
- CRM and human-machine interface considerations
- AND… Dependencies of other systems such as GPS and Flight Management System, and the consequences of their failures on the ADS-B system.
I will talk more about ADS-B in a future podcast. TrainingPort.net who produces this podcast has online ADS-B training available. You can go their website at www.trainingport.net for more information.
Okay, back to laser strike.
What about rotary operations?
FAA researchers have shown that 70% of helicopter exposures were within 2,000 feet of the ground versus only 21% for fixed wing aircraft. Therefore, the rotary pilot is generally closer to the laser suspect and more at risk for negative physiological affects.
What can be done?
After the fact, you can complete a Laser Beam Exposure Questionnaire if you are in the US, or in Canada, the airport may ask a police officer to attend the aircraft after landing. Whatever the procedure, make sure you report it.
If you believe there has been injury to the eye, then remove yourself from duty and get an examination performed by an eye doctor. Symptoms can include blurred vision, afterimages, double vision, headaches, tearing, photosensitivity, and others. Some pilots have reported a burning sensation in the eye.
When is a laser exposure MOST dangerous?
As you might expect, the laser is most dangerous to the eye when it strikes the pupil in the direction where you are looking at that time. So, the laser goes directly into your eye. Also, the danger level is much higher when the eye is focused on an object far away. This is the perfect set-up for a pilot or passenger to be affected.
What is an effective mitigation strategy?
The Australian and the American Regulators recommend the following steps to minimize the effects of a laser strike. The steps in brief are: Anticipate, aviate, navigate, communicate, illuminate (which refers to cockpit lighting), delegate, attenuate, do not exacerbate (which means avoid rubbing your eyes), and finally evaluate (if symptoms persist, see an eye doctor).
So, let’s talk about each.
Anticipate: When operating in a known or suspected laser environment, the pilot monitoring should be prepared to take control of the aircraft. Single pilot operators should be extra vigilant. If your operation has an SOP, then even better, such as the call “laser.” Each pilot should look down or away at this time to minimize exposure time.
Aviate: check aircraft configuration and (if available) consider engaging the autopilot to maintain the established flight path.
Navigate: use the fuselage of the aircraft to block the laser beam by climbing or turning away.
Communicate: Inform ATC of the situation. Include location and direction of the beam, your present location, and altitude. You could squawk ident which would provide your immediate location to ATC.
Illuminate: Turn up the cockpit lights to minimize any further illumination effects.
Delegate: If another crew member has avoided exposure, consider transferring control to the unexposed crew member.
Attenuate: Shield your eyes when possible (hand, clipboard, visor, etc.). Do not look directly at the laser beam and avoid drawing other crew members’ attention to the beam.
Do not exacerbate: Avoid rubbing your eyes and possibly creating further injury.
Evaluate: If any visual symptoms persist after landing, get an examination by an eye doctor.
Is there anything we can do as an industry?
I live in a small mountain town in British Columbia, and the airport is on the edge of town. The laser free area according to the Transport Canada website covers the entire town, so outdoor laser usage is not allowed in my town at all. Residents may not be aware of this. How would they learn this fact? It’s easily found on the web; however, would people think to look for that information after purchasing a laser?
The FAA suggests that industry can…
- Educate the public regarding the risks of lasers to aviation safety,
- Encourage the reporting of malicious behaviour,
- Restrict the sale of certain laser devices to the general public,
- Encourage manufacturers to attach warning labels on laser devices that address aviation concerns,
- Perform studies on the use of laser eye protection as an option in the aviation environment, and
- Investigate the value of deploying laser detection and recording systems on civilian aircraft.
Okay, so the FAA suggests investigating and studying laser-related issues. Is there anyone researching this stuff?
The US Coast Guard has had a few illumination occurrences, and they are greatly affected by this, as the time it takes to dispatch a second crew and aircraft is considerable.
Their research project looked at a flexible optical filter that is reflective of lasers only and has just a slight tint, so it doesn’t interfere with the pilot’s visibility. The material can be applied to any transparent surface such as the cockpit windshield. The material is designed to deflect laser beams and prevent them from reaching the inside of the cockpit. There is laser eye protection on the market; however, according to the Coast Guard, it is not viable for use by Coast Guard pilots because it blocks out too much light. Coast Guard pilots can be operating in low light conditions.
Commercial and general aviation pilots may be better suited to laser eye protection that can be worn.
As with most things in aviation, have a plan and know what to do when your aircraft is illuminated by a laser. If your operation has a procedure, then great—follow it. Always report the occurrence to ATC or other aircraft when safe to do so, and always report to the appropriate authorities after landing.
Thanks for listening and have a great day!