The Increasing Danger of Laser Strikes

Laser strikes 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 7,700 reported laser strikes in 2015 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 strike can cause considerable distraction or temporary flash blindness to a pilot during a critical phase of flight, such as landing or takeoff. Most laser strikes 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 strikes are becoming so common in some countries that handheld laser pointers have been banned altogether. New Zealand, New South Wales, and Australia have regulated the trade of lasers, making carrying a laser without cause illegal.

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The 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 strikes 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 strike, 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.

The first airplane 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.

Law, Legislation, and Regulation in some Countries

Canada:
Under the Canadian Aeronautics Act, if you are convicted of pointing a laser at an aircraft, you could face up to $100,000 in fines, five years in prison, or both.
Source: Transport Canada

United States of America:
On February 14, 2012, the President signed Public Law 112-95 (PDF), the “FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.” Section 311 amended Title 18 of the United States Code (U.S.C.) Chapter 2, § 39, by adding § 39A, which makes it a federal crime to aim a laser pointer at an aircraft.

On July 15 2016, President Obama signed the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016. One of the provisions provides funding for the agency to report four times a year to Congress about the following:

  • the number of laser pointer incidents reported to FAA
  • the number of civil and criminal enforcement actions
  • the resolution of any incidents that did not result in a civil or criminal action
  • any actions taken to help deter laser pointer incidents

In addition, the maximum civil penalty that FAA can impose was raised to $25,000. It was formerly $11,000.

U.S. Government Printing Office

United Kingdom:
Air Navigation Order 2009 outlines two offences—directing or shining any light at any aircraft in flight so as to dazzle or distract the pilot of the aircraft (Article 137-138), and recklessly or negligently acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft, or any person therein (Article 222).

The former offence could result in a fine up to £2,500, and the latter in a fine up to £5,000, and/or five years’ imprisonment.

Regarding vehicles, the Road Traffic Act 1988 Section 22A(1)(a) states that causing danger to other road-users could result in a fine up to £5,000, and/or a maximum of seven years’ imprisonment.

If such action results in a fatal accident, then consideration will be given to an offence of manslaughter.

In cases of assault, the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 states that causing actual bodily harm or grievous bodily harm could result in a fine up to £5,000, and/or five years’ imprisonment.