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Green Lasers Targeting Air Ambulances: a Problem that Needs Solving in 2011

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A very important topic in the air ambulance industry for 2011 is the burning issue of ground-to-air laser targeting of aircraft by civilians. In particular, February has seen no shortage of incidents regarding ordinary people carelessly endangering the lives of air medical crews and patients by pointing hand-held laser devices at aircraft.

Traveling at the speed of light, a laser beam in the aircraft gives no warning before it appears “out of nowhere,” making it a serious danger for air medical crews, who literally have no time to react to the situation.

“There is a general anger that someone could be so stupid to do such a thing to any aircraft, let alone the air ambulance,” says Carl Hudson, an air ambulance paramedic in the UK. (BBC News)

Carl Hudson was on-board an air ambulance traveling over a highly populated area in east Wales just after nightfall on February 12, when a laser light suddenly shone into the cockpit and lit up the cabin of the aircraft. The pilot managed to shield his eyes, but both Hudson and the one other paramedic on board were temporarily “dazzled” (scientifically, the effect that occurs when one looks into the sun or another intense light source and temporarily loses clear vision) by the beam.

Hudson added, “There is only one pilot on the aircraft and if he is temporarily [disorientated] … the worst case scenario would be the aircraft would have come down.”

Air ambulance services in the UK have been experiencing a number of recent incidents where regular people have interfered with their operations. Back in late December, a group of children throwing a barrage of snowballs prevented a Wales Air Ambulance helicopter from landing to pick up a critical patient in dangerous weather conditions. They were forced to abandon their attempts to land, and with ground ambulances unable to reach the site, the unconscious patient had to be transported by a 4X4 police vehicle to the hospital.

The UK isn’t the only place suffering from these kind of incidents, however. Just a few days ago in Australia, two men were arrested for pointing a pocket laser pen at the cockpit of an air ambulance as it approached a hospital. Australia’s Civil Aviation Authority has said that they “are becoming increasingly concerned at incidents of this kind. Shining lasers or lights at aircraft in flight pose very real safety risks for the pilots and passengers on-board.” The two men are scheduled to appear for trial this Saturday, according to the Dunoon Observer.

Last Wednesday, a woman was arrested in Long Beach for pointing a laser at an LBPD helicopter and a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department helicopter. “By blinding the operators of aircraft, the act of pointing a laser at an aircraft not only endangers its occupants, but also the community below, putting many lives at risk,” a police spokeswoman said. Just a week before, a 14-year old girl was arrested for shining a laser at a plane trying to land at Los Angeles International Airport. LAX has had the most laser incidents in the nation, with 108 incidents in 2010. A substantial amount of these incidents occur when aircraft are in the midst of takeoffs or landings.

Green lasers scatter light over long distances, presenting more danger to pilots than might be expected from the relatively small dot they produce at short range. Photo: Discovery News

A spokesman for the FAA told CNN that “there have been cases where pilots have suffered temporary vision problems as a result of being struck by a laser beam. We’ve had reports of pilots having to turn over control of the aircraft to a co-pilot or had to abort landing.”

“We don’t think people appreciate the seriousness of shining lasers at aircraft,” says FAA administrator Randy Babbitt. “These are powerful lasers. […] Let’s hope it’s not intentional.”

The FAA heard about 300 reports of laser incidents in 2005. That number increased to 2,836 incidents in 2010. Last month, Congress introduced H.R.386, the Securring Aircraft Cockpits Against Lasers Act of 2011. This act makes it a federal crime to aim of the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft or in its flight path, with very few exceptions (one being an exception for individuals using laser beams to send emergency distress signals, and all others being related to FAA, Department of Defense, or Homeland Security research and testing).

One may wonder what is happening in the world when such a large number of people are seeking casual entertainment by pointing lasers at aircraft, particularly when the disastrous, potentially lethal consequences of their actions seem to be glaringly obvious.

Some of us may have ventured out to see a film at a theatre where someone waved a small red laser pointer dot at the screen (in the 1990s, perhaps). The newer green laser pointers are just as small, but produce a much brighter, more powerful beam than their red counterparts. A military-grade green laser pointer with a projected visibility of 10 miles can be purchased readily for a little over ten dollars today – no license required.

Astronomers sometimes use green lasers to point out celestial objects, much in the same way a lecturer but the chances of an accidental “perfect shot” into the windshield of any aircraft, including a low-flying one, are incredibly slim. According to various police sources across the nation, it’s often kids, teens, and young men in their early twenties responsible for shining laser beams at aircraft.

But they’re not the only ones to blame. Last month, a 43-year old man in Florida pleaded guilty to interfering with a sheriff’s helicopter with a laser – a decision that could cost him 20 years in federal prison.

And, only hours ago, the trial date was set for another grown man accused of shining a green laser at a California Highway Patrol helicopter. He was charged with two felony and two misdemeanor counts, including discharging a laser and interfering with aircraft. The man says that he did not deliberately point the laser light at the aircraft, but still faces 4 years and 8 months in prison if convicted. The helicopter pilot claimed he was temporarily blinded by the laser and could not see for several seconds afterward.

The threat to air ambulances presented by powerful astronomy/scientific consumer lasers is self-evident.

The CHP pilot’s story is not unusual. Last month National Public Radio interviewed Steve Robertson, a veteran pilot and police sergeant in Glendale, California, who experienced an encounter with one of the green lasers in the middle of a helicopter flight. “It immediately [lit] up the whole cockpit and it hit both of my eyes and burned both of my corneas,” he told NPR. “Instantly, I was blinded. It felt like I was hit in the face with a baseball bat — just an intense, burning pain.”

Air ambulance services are especially vulnerable to laser “strikes,” since even if the pilot and co-pilot are able to avoid the beam, air medical crews in the middle of caring for patients (as well as patients directly) can still be directly affected when the beam hits the windshield, refracts, and illuminates the cockpit and cabin.

“Not only is this childish prank putting lives at risk as it is difficult for the pilots to see, but it also adds valuable time on to a life saving mission as we try to land the helicopter and transfer seriously ill patients to further care.”

Carl Hudson, the UK air ambulance paramedic who was blinded temporarily during a flight in Wales, mentioned that it was lucky there was no patient being transported when the laser hit. Things could have gone much differently had he and the other blinded paramedic been in the middle of critical care procedures with a patient.

States have had laws dealing with lasers aimed at aircraft for years. The FAA has established laser-free zones around airports. Technically, it’s always been against the law to endanger an aircraft in flight, yet, despite so many arrests and convictions, the number of laser targeting aircraft incidents has increased almost 1000% over the last 5 years. Is H.R.386 enough? What do you think should be done about this issue?

Note from Air Ambulance Weekly: If you believe a laser has been aimed at your aircraft, immediately report it to ATC.

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