Dangerous Pastime Compromises Aviation Safety

In February 2012, the act of aiming the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft, or at the flight path of an aircraft, in the United States, became a criminal offense when President Barack Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 into law. A recent FAA report reveals that the law has not had the desired effect in curbing this dangerous pastime, as in January this year there were 346 reported cases, compared with the 283 for the entire year of 2005. This is despite the fact that the FAA has endeavored to bring this problem to the attention of the public, including making provision on the FAA website for anyone to report a laser incident, anonymously if preferred.

Two incidents at LaGuardia airport on the night of October 15 are reportedly being investigated by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, highlighting just how seriously authorities are taking this issue. These two incidents bring the total number of laser incidents at LaGuardia Airport this year alone to 54, with three of those occurring in October, and while no deaths have resulted from these incidents, a number of pilots have reportedly suffered injuries to their eyes. Thanks to the skill and dedication of the pilots, they have been able to land their aircraft safely, but the distraction of a laser pointer, which can and does cause temporary blindness, poses a significant threat to aviation safety.

There are many legitimate uses for lasers and other bright lights being shone into the sky, and it is generally agreed among safety experts that a pilot being distracted during cruising does not pose an undue risk. The real danger is during the phases of flight that are classed as ‘critical’ – takeoff, approach, landing and emergency measures. Low-powered lasers are readily available to the public, and some of the effects these could have on a pilot’s vision include what has been described as: ‘distraction and startle’ where the pilot is startled by the bright light and temporarily distracted, particularly as he or she does not know if another brighter light may follow; ‘glare and disruption’ is caused by an increase in the brightness of the light dispersed across the airplane’s window and interferes with vision; and ‘flash blindness’ where night vision is temporarily lost and afterimages of the light remain in the pilot’s vision for a time. Anyone who has had their photograph taken with a flash in the dark will be familiar with this.

While the type of lasers that could do permanent damage to a pilot’s vision are not available to the public, the run-of-the-mill laser being used by pranksters puts unnecessary pressure on pilots who carry the responsibility for the safety of their crew and passengers. Hopefully, the very real possibility of being tracked down by authorities and landing up in jail will be some sort of deterrent to people engaged in this dangerous activity.