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Green Laser Aimed at Aircraft Injures Pilot’s Eye; How Can We Stop These Kind Of Incidents?

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Last week, a pilot for the American airline JetBlue suffered injuries to one eye as a result of a green laser being shone into the cockpit. Authorities have yet to find the person responsible for the senseless act. The FAA and the FBI are both investigating the incident.

According to an FAA report, the incident occurred on a Sunday when Flight 657, carrying 84 people, was flying to NYC’s JFK airport from Syracuse, NY.

The green beam shot into the cockpit through the windshield of the Embraer E190 and hit the first officer in the eye. On the ground, the control tower received immediate notification of the incident.

According to a live tape of the incident, the pilot who contacted the tower told the tower, “We just got lasered up here. Two green flashes into the cockpit,” adding that the flashes “caught the first officer in his eye.”

A preliminary incident report from the Federal Aviation Administration said that the pilot’s eye injury was minor.

Link: Listen to the live recording of this incident at LiveATC.net (registration required)

“Use caution. I just had an unauthorized laser illumination event about seven miles ahead of you at 5,000 feet,” the controller was recorded as saying.

A week prior to this incident, newspapers reported that two separate flights had been targeted by green lasers in San Francisco. However, no injuries occurred in either instance.

In 2011, there were over 3,500 reported occurrences of lasers being shone at aircraft, up from 2,836 in 2010. In 2005, there were 283. That’s almost exactly a ten-fold increase in five years.

Year Reported Laser/Aircraft Incidents
2010 2836
2009 1527
2009 1527
2008 913
2007 590
2006 384
2005 283

Source: FAA.gov

As you can see from the table above, these are ongoing, life-threatening incidents caused either by ignorant or malicious law-breakers.

Air Ambulance Weekly has blogged about the green laser issue many times in the past, including last September when a carelessly aimed green laser pen prevented an air ambulance carrying a cardiac arrest patient from landing.

In February of last year, a green laser shone through the cockpit of an air ambulance reflected into the cabin, dazzling (temporarily blinding and disorienting) the air medical crew. Back then, we needed a solution. Now, we need one even more.

Pictured: Green laser pointers can produce surprisingly powerful beams capable of lighting up cockpits and cabins and dazzling or injuring aircraft crews.

Green laser pointers produce a much more focused, intense beam of light than red laser pointers. Although they do lose some of their focus over the distance required to make contact with an aircraft in the sky, the beam still remains fairly focused until it hits the windshield. When the beam penetrates the windshield of an aircraft, it splits up and spreads the light out across a wider space. In low-light conditions of a night air ambulance flight, the light appears even brighter. When a pilot or crewmember’s eyes have adjusted to low lighting inside the aircraft, the sudden, unexpected appearance of bright green light through the windshield can seriously endanger the safety of the flight.

If green lasers continue to be aimed at aircraft at such a high rate, it is only a matter of time before one of them causes a crash. But we should not wait until the worst happens to begin solving the problem.

Questions We Face

Green Laser Pointer By Georgy90 Own work CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0 or GFDL http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html, via Wikimedia Commons

A simple green laser pointer like this one, used for many different purposes including pointing at celestial objects, poses a severe threat to modern aircraft.

As in the past, authorities have claimed that they are looking closely at the situation and pursuing stricter penalties for violators. However, the question remains – how, precisely, do you effectively catch those who endanger aircraft with lasers?

It appears it would not be too difficult to do so, as the laser essentially draws a beam of light back to its origin. Thus, it would seem that some sort of electronic detection and automated reporting system could be put in place.

Even in this scenario, what would happen once the origin of the beam was reported? Airport security or law enforcement would need to be dispatched to the exact location, which would give the offender enough time to leave.

Interfering with the crew of any kind of flight is a federal crime. Over the past few years, several perpetrators have been prosecuted. Again, that’s “several” offenders who have been prosecuted – out of several thousand reported events.

The claim that “several” people who have endangered flight crews with handheld lasers have been prosecuted for their senseless crimes offers little reassurance for air medical crews, pilots, and all other frequent flyers.

In fact, the ratio of those caught to those who got away is so one-sided that individual incidents in which someone is actually arrested for endangering the lives of people aboard aircraft are, themselves, highly notable. You may remember that in 2009, a man in California was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in federal prison for shining a laser beam at two planes landing at an Orange County airport.

Possible Solutions

By GUDWlN (Own work) (CC0), via Wikimedia CommonsWhile some may disagree, most Americans would probably concur that in the interest of preserving our individual freedom, we cannot simply ban all handheld lasers.

Could the intensity of the lasers be tuned to make them less of a threat to aircraft? Possibly, but this would be an unfair punishment for legitimate astronomers who rely on them to point out celestial objects. Perhaps requiring a specialized license to purchase, own, and operate a laser capable of blinding and causing injury to the crewmembers of aircraft thousands of feet in the air?

One of the best possible solutions I’ve heard proposed, at least in terms of practicality, is that pilots wear anti-laser goggles in order to prevent beams from interfering with or harming their eyesight. This technology has already been in use by the military, and could potentially be “scaled down” (if needed) to provide pilots with eye protection on a mass scale to defend against the threat posed by civilian-owned laser beams.

This incident was a warning we should all take note of. The next time a green laser enters a cockpit, it could cause casualties. Based on the skyrocketing number of laser beam incidents reported, the problem is grave enough that it calls for an immediate, even drastic, resolution.

Besides the solutions proposed in this article, what else can be done to reduce the risk/number of incidents of green lasers targeting aircraft? What do you propose we do to solve this problem before it costs a life?

Additional Information

Recently the FAA created a page detailing information on what to do in the event of a laser incident: http://www.faa.gov/aircraft/safety/report/laserinfo/

If you are a member of an air medical crew (or any crew), the procedure for reporting the event will of course be different; for members of the public who witness someone aiming a laser at an aircraft or near an airport, the FAA asks that you:

Send an email to LaserReports@faa.gov with the following information:

  1. Your name and contact information
  2. Date and time you witnessed the incident
  3. Location and description of the incident

Please see the official FAA site for more information.

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Discussion
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