The Increasing Danger of Laser Strikes

Laser glares have been a concern—particularly in the aviation industry—since the 1980s. Part of this problem is directly related to handheld laser pointers becoming simultaneously less expensive and more powerful. With over 7440 laser strikes reported in 2016 alone, there has never been a better time to invest in protection from this potentially devastating threat.

When a laser beam hits an aircraft windshield, tiny scratches and dirt on the windshield create a glare effect which spreads the light across the pilot’s field of vision. Pilots do not see this light as a small beam or dot; they experience a large glow which can be difficult to see through. A laser beam becomes wider over long distances and may grow to a few inches or even a few feet in diameter. The laser glare can cause considerable distraction or temporary flash blindness to a pilot during a critical phase of flight, such as landing or takeoff. Most laser glares occur during the approach phase of a plane’s descent.

Laser strike awareness has increased significantly over the past few decades, and now many pilots from around the world are beginning to advocate for stronger laser safety measures. In fact, laser glares are becoming so common in some countries that handheld laser pointers are banned altogether. 

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An Increase in Laser Strikes

Handheld lasers are rapidly increasing in power and decreasing in price. A handheld laser capable of distracting a pilot can cost as little as $15 USD, according to a BBC News article. The strength of readily available lasers has also increased. Ten years ago, a green 300 milliwatt (1mW is equivalent to 1/1000 watts) laser was only realistically available to researchers. Today, 300mW green lasers are readily available online for as little as $17 USD.

Advocates for laser safety have been trying to draw attention to the threat of laser attacks for years. In fact, in Canada and the United States, there are currently no legislative measures preventing high-powered lasers from being purchased for personal use. The lack of laser safety regulations leads to handheld laser misconduct, causing reckless endangerment of an aircraft. Over half of all perpetrators who are arrested for intentionally aiming laser beams at an aircraft are between the ages of 20 and 29 years old (data compiled from laserpointersafety.com). Many of these people did not realize the potential harm they were causing when they were arrested.

The problem is multifaceted—lasers are widely available, unregulated, inexpensive, and people often do not know the dangers of their misuse. Users of powerful laser pointers are sometimes not even aware that the light from a handheld laser can reach an aircraft, or know that it is illegal to intentionally point lasers at an aircraft. Laser misuse is a problem of price, availability, strength, and lack of regulation, amplified by a lack of understanding of laser safety.

Prevention Initiatives

As laser strike in commercial aviation become more prevalent, pilots are stepping forward to talk about how lasers affect the aviation industry. Although it is rare for a pilot to experience permanent vision loss as a result of a laser glare, being struck by a laser is still “quite an unnerving experience” according to seasoned pilot Ollie Dismore. This MailOnline article reports that in Dismore’s 23-year career as a police helicopter pilot, he has experienced in excess of 20 laser strikes. His anecdote offers a glimpse into how lasers are impacting pilots’ careers and the way that they operate aircraft.

One of the first airplanes to have its flight path altered as a result of a laser strike was Virgin Atlantic Flight 025, departing from Heathrow Airport in London on February 14, 2016. Veteran pilot Capt. Ian Smith had to take control after his co-pilot was flash blinded by a green laser.

“It was when I looked over to him that I could see the green light that was being reflected off the cockpit window,” Smith reported to the CBC. “He looked at me and said … ‘I’m having trouble seeing out of my right eye.'”

Commercial airline pilot Janet Alexander told BBC News that being struck by a laser in a critical phase of flight is “like a lightning strike in that it’s very instantaneous, very bright light, which is dazzling. If it’s targeted in exactly the wrong way you could permanently damage someone’s sight.” Another pilot compared a laser attack to walking through the intense bright light of an LCD projector in this February 2016 MailOnline article.

The head of the Air Canada Pilots Association is calling on Ontario, Canada to put sophisticated laser pointers on the list of prohibited weapons, according to this CBC article. The British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) is also advocating for pilots’ safety during critical phases of flight. They’re asking the British government to classify lasers as “offensive weapons”, resulting in a total ban on lasers. BALPA general secretary Jim McAuslan reinforced the urgency for laser protection in an interview conducted by CNN’s Kellie Morgan. In his statement, he says that pointing a laser at an aircraft “is an incredibly dangerous thing to do.” Furthermore, “shining a laser at an aircraft puts that aircraft, its crew and all the passengers on board at completely unnecessary risk.”

Government organizations such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Transport Canada, and the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) are strongly encouraging pilots to report laser strikes during flight and have made their data publicly available. Transport Canada has also launched an initiative to educate people about laser safety with their #NotABrightIdea campaign.

Quick Facts

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

  • The average time for laser strike occurrences in the United States is 1:00 AM to 5:00 AM according to the FAA.
  • FAA data shows that most laser strikes occur during the approach phase of a plane’s descent. 
  • There were 6,753 laser strikes reported to the FAA in 2017
  • The number of FAA-reported laser incidents nearly doubled in 2015 to 7,703
  • The top five US cities affected by laser strikes in 2014 were Houston, Los Angeles, San Juan, Phoenix, and Las Vegas according to the FAA.

Transport Canada

  • Transport Canada’s CANDORS report shows that laser strikes in commercial aviation has been climbing since 2000.
  • According to Transport Canada, 96% of recorded laser strikes are green.
  • According to Transport Canada, the majority of laser strike in commercial aviation occur from 12:00 AM to 5:00 AM.
  • In 2015, the top five Canadian cities affected by laser strikes in commercial aviation were Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, St. Hubert, and Ottawa.
  • In 2016, there were over 500 reported incidents.

United Kingdom Civil Aviation Authority (UK CAA)

Other Laser Statistics

  • According to www.laserpointersafety.com, green lasers are the most sensitive to the human eye.
  • The average cost of a 300 milliwatt (mW) laser has decreased by 30 times over the past ten years.
  • Ten years ago, a 300 mW (1mW is equivalent to 1/1000 watts) was only afforded by researchers or for industrial purposes. Today, 300mW green lasers are readily available online for as little as $20 USD.
  • Handheld lasers have become 45 times more powerful over the past 10 years.
  • According to a www.laserpointersafety.com report, about 53% of aircraft endangerment arrests were for people aged 20 to 29. Aviation endangerment perpetrators often do not realize the dangers associated with their offence at the time of the incident. Many claim that they did not realize that a laser pointer could even reach an aircraft.