Unbelievable – or is it? From Britain, comes yet another deplorable instance of a misguided person interfering with an air ambulance transport by way of a handheld laser pen.
According to the BBC’s report, the air ambulance helicopter was responding to an emergency at a man’s house in Caine. The man, in his 70′s, had suffered a cardiac arrest.
The air ambulance crew successfully picked up the patient, and the aircraft was on its way to the hospital when they encountered the dazzling effects of a laser pen entering the cockpit. The bright beam interfered with the pilot’s vision, forcing him to abort the landing.
Because of this, the patient had to be transferred to a ground ambulance and then taken to the hospital by road. Later, at the hospital, the man was pronounced dead.
A spokesman for the local police stated that the department did not feel that the helicopter being unable to land at the hospital ultimately affected the patient’s outcome.
The rather rhetorical question is… Does that make it okay?
It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Britain, the United States, Canada, China, or anywhere else in the world – interference with and/or endangerment an aircraft is a very serious offense. Never, aside from a military operation, would it ever be considered acceptable to shine a laser light at the cockpit of an aircraft, where it could distract and/or temporarily blind the pilot or crew – let alone at an air ambulance carrying critically-ill patients.
There were 2,836 incidents of laser pointers aimed at aircraft reported to the FAA in 2010. That number has increased approximately 1000% since 2005.
Something must be done.
Soon after the incident, the Wiltshire Gazette and Herald labeled the pen-wielding troublemakers as “yobs,” a British slang word roughly translating to “hooligans” or “rude, uneducated, uncultured persons,” in the title of their write-up about the incident.
The Wiltshire Police denounced the attackers, calling their actions “dangerous and foolish,” and warned that the atrocious prank could have had “catastrophic” consequences.
The Effects of Laser Pens on Aircraft
Regardless that this particular laser pen incident and the pilot’s inability to land due to it, in this specific instance, is not believed to have altered the patient’s outcome, it easily could have under other circumstances – everyday, typical circumstances.
Although laser pens produce a small dot, the concentrated light beam of modern laser pens focus a very intense amount of power. When the beam from a laser pen passes through an aircraft’s windshield, however, it splits. At the speed of light, the beam can break apart into multiple streaks of intense light, which bounce, reflect, and refract off the many specular surfaces in the cockpit and cabin, resulting in big problems for air medical crews.
The resulting light spread in a comparatively dark cockpit is not only a sudden distraction in the air, but can result in the “dazzle” effect, which temporarily causes pilots and air medical crewmembers to lose clear vision. The danger presented by such an effect in a moving aircraft can be considered self-evident.
What Can Air Ambulances Do About Laser Pens?
Unfortunately, the danger posed by hand-held laser pens is not a new issue affecting the air medical world (in fact, we discussed it in some detail back in February of this year). The issue, however, that has clearly not been discussed enough, as made evident by the continuing occurrence of incidents like the one discussed in this article.
Some solutions that frequently are brought up, include banning civilians from owning laser pens outright (generally not considered feasible, for a number of reasons), researching and installing new treatments for aircraft windshields that can protect air crews and passengers at least from the dazzling effects of laser lights entering the cockpit, and instituting harsher penalties for those caught “green-handed” so to speak.
The last of these possible courses of action does not generally find many in the air medical field who oppose it, but we must ask ourselves: would such really be noticed, let alone deter the type of personality who would shine a beam of light into an emergency medical aircraft trying to blind the pilot?
The Wiltshire Police made an interesting statement when they pointed out that the laser pens work both ways, and it’s possible for an air crew to identify where the laser came from. Perhaps a logical, if long-term, solution would be to install laser detection equipment on air ambulances, and/or train pilots and crews even more in what to do in the random but serious event of a laser pen “attack” (the word used by the UK’s Daily Mirror).
Instituting new technologies and clear, standardized protocols for detecting the position of civilians shining lasers at an air ambulance and quickly relaying it to law enforcement officials would not solve the laser pen problem entirely, but it could help in a certain percentage of the cases, potentially cutting down the amount of incidents over a period of time. What actions do you think should be taken to reduce the number of incidents of laser pens aimed at aircraft?