Laser Illumination Incidents: What Pilots Need To Know

Pilots must deal with a variety of threats and hazards, some of which are more common than others. Laser pointers have many legitimate uses on the ground, but if somebody decides to shine the device into the sky, the resulting beam of light could present a risk to an aircraft pilot. If you are in flight school, learn more about the hazards that laser pointers can present, and find out what pilots need to do to cope with a potential illumination event.

The scale of the issue

Incidents involving laser pointers and aircraft are not as rare as you might imagine. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Authority dealt with 17,663 reports of laser/aircraft incidents between 2010 and 2014. In fact, in that period, there were only eight days when one of these incidents did not occur.

Interestingly, these incidents are more common at certain times. Incidents are more common between July and November, while Friday and Saturday evenings are also incident hot spots. Given the possible risk from a laser pointer, FDA regulations in the United States ban laser pointers that emit more than 5 milliwatts.

Nonetheless, illegal devices remain relatively common. For example, the Laser Institute of America issued a press release in 2010 warning about a device sold through an online retailer that emitted 1000 milliwatts.

The risk to pilots

Laser pointers can emit a light beam bright enough to illuminate a plane cockpit. In some cases, this type of light is simply an annoying distraction, but this sort of disturbance could also become more serious if the pilot's inattention leads to a dangerous error.

A laser light flashing in a cockpit is about 25 percent brighter than a flashlight flashed in your face. As such, it's also easy to see how a laser attack could temporarily blind a pilot. If he or she is landing or taking off, the risk to the aircraft becomes significant.

Serious eye injuries can also occur. While there are no documented cases of permanent eye damage, a laser strike can cause a nasty temporary burn to the cornea, which is enough to put a pilot in hospital. So far, no serious accidents have occurred as a result of a laser pointer attack, but experts fear it is just a matter of time.

Coping with an attack

The risk of a laser attack is serious enough to merit further pilot training and safety information. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) released an information brochure in 2011 with tips and guidance for pilots, and a video from the FAA and the Air Force gives more detailed advice. Some aviation schools now also offer training sessions to show pilots what to do.

There are several important steps to consider during an illumination attack. These include:

  • Adapting the flight path according to the situation. For example, if it's not safe to land, consider whether a go-around is safer.
  • Blocking light from a repeated attack. A clipboard, a visor or even a hand could give you relief from the light long enough to move out of danger.
  • Turning up the cockpit lights. An illuminated cockpit is less prone to attack from a laser pointer.
  • Switching to the autopilot or handing control to a co-pilot.

Pilots should also tell air traffic control (ATC) about the incident as soon as possible. Where appropriate, ATC will put out a broadcast to warn other pilots in the area. You should also ask an eye doctor to check your eyes after the incident, if you experience any pain or uncomfortable symptoms.

Protective eyewear

Some pilots prefer to wear protective eyewear. The FAA does not recommend or request that pilots use laser protective eyewear, but these glasses are useful to have in the cockpit if the plane comes under attack from a laser pointer device. These glasses cut out much of the glare from the laser, without interfering with the pilot's view of other cockpit lights.

Despite efforts by the authorities to crack down on illegal devices, laser pointer attacks remain relatively common in the United States. Use the training material and resources available to you, and make sure you know how to cope with a laser illumination incident.