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Laser Attacks


What?

Some people find joy in targeting laser pens towards aircraft cockpits

Why?

Not only can pilots suffer long-term eye injury, but the blinding effect could also potentially lead to a flight incident.

How?

Authorities need to take firm action against persons involved in this criminal behaviour. Offenders need to be prosecuted and the public made aware of the dangers and penalties of such irresponsible acts.


In recent years laser pointers have become readily available to the general public. More worryingly, there has also been an increase in the deliberate (and illegitimate) use of laser pointers to illuminate aircraft and air traffic control towers. This (slightly modified) Skybrary article provides information about laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) devices and the potentially hazardous effects their use can cause in navigable airspace in particular to pilots during critical stages of flight such as take-off and approach/landing.

Effects

The potentially hazardous visual effects of lasers are generally only visible during night time. The lasers produce an intense, coherent directional beam of light with wavelengths covering the visual spectrum of 400-700nm.

The main visual effects are:

Distraction and Startle: This occurs when an unexpected laser (or other bright light) can distract a pilot during a nighttime take-off or approach/landing.

Glare and Disruption: This occurs as the intensity of the laser light increases such that it starts to interfere with vision; night vision starts to deteriorate.

Temporary Flash blindness: This effect is similar to that experienced when looking at a bright camera flash. There is no injury, but a portion of the visual field is temporarily knocked out. Sometimes there are ‘afterimages’.

Factors Affecting Lasers in Aviation

  • Weather,
  • Time of day,
  • Power of the laser,
  • Colour of the laser,
  • Distance and relative angle of the laser and aircraft,
  • Speed of the aircraft and,
  • Exposure time.
  • Reducing the Hazard

Mitigation Measures

There are several means employed to try to reduce hazards associated with lasers in navigable airspace:

Laser Light Hazard Reduction - Concentrates on preventing and keeping the laser light from being directed into navigable airspace especially that used by aircraft around airports and on known flight paths. In the US automated detection/avoidance systems are used to terminate or reduce the power of the lasers in certain circumstances; airspace observers or ‘spotters’ are also used to help keep the lasers away from in-flight aircraft.

Regulatory Reductions - Include national measures to restrict the sale, carriage and use of lasers as well as amending existing laws and statutes. Educating the public in the safe use of pointers is also important as is providing warning labels on the laser devices (especially those above 5mW) about the dangers of shining lasers at aircraft. Some laser manufacturers are also actively engaged in strengthening the regulatory process in some countries.

Pilot Defences - Consist of pilots being trained in laser illumination recovery techniques (e.g. look away from the beam and do not try to find the source of the laser, engage the autopilot, turn up cockpit lighting). Pilots should also check NOTAMs for notified laser activity along their flight plan route. Finally, pilots should report all laser illuminations to air traffic control and complete an Air Safety Report in accordance with company/national policies

Air Traffic Control Defences - Consist of air traffic controllers recognising a laser illumination (of the visual control room facility) and reacting accordingly. They should not try to identify the light source and should inform aircraft under their control about the laser illumination. As with pilots, air traffic controllers should report laser illuminations to their company/CAA in accordance with company and national policies.

Physical Defences - Could include the wearing of laser safety goggles to shield pilots’ eyes although their use is generally considered impracticable in most circumstances. Glare shields may also offer limited protection but again their use and effectiveness is questionable.

Regulations and Control - In the US, the FAA has established airspace zones around airports which limits the power of lasers used inside the zones.

  • Laser-Free Zones around the immediate environs of the airport;
  • Critical Flight Zones covering 10nm around airports (light intensity < 5 microwatts per square centimetre (µW/cm²));
  • and Sensitive Flight Zones (optional) where the FAA has specified that light intensity must be less than 100µW/cm².

Self Assessment Tool for Pilots

The CAA has developed a self-assessment tool for pilots that have been involved in a laser attack which can help determine whether they have sustained an eye injury.   The Aviation Laser Exposure Self Assessment (ALESA) tool is freely available online as a downloadable file that pilots can print off and use straight away or keep in their flight bags.  

The core of the test consists of a 10cm² grid that, when viewed from 30cm away, can be used to detect whether a pilot’s vision has been affected by the laser beam. When printed the grid should measure exactly 10cm x 10cm. The tool also includes guidance on when pilots should seek precautionary help from an eye specialist such as an optometrist or ophthalmologist. 

Legislation

In the UK as from January 2010, it became a specific offence under the States Air Navigation Order (ANO). Article 135A 'Dangerous Lights' now states that; “A person shall not direct or shine any light at any aircraft in flight so as to dazzle or distract the pilot of the aircraft”.

This article has made it much easier for Courts to achieve legal action. Within a matter of weeks of the regulation coming into force in the UK there were a number of legal proceedings with offenders receiving custodial sentences with a new national campaign highlighting the penalties that will be faced. This has resulted in a very significant reduction in events and the appreciation of potential perpetrators of the very serious risks involved.

The UK approach of enabling high level legislation to specifically identify the targeting of aircraft with the effect of endangering it and or its occupants with a laser device sends a clear message to potential offenders and is a deterrent. There is currently no common approach in Europe regarding the measure to be taken to prevent laser and dangerous lights attacks and to sanction their authors. Some countries have similar legislation, some other may give penalties to actions that endanger an aircraft but elsewhere nothing is established to prevent such unlawful acts.

More useful links and information

Below you find a couple of useful sources of information. Some may seem outdated, nevertheless, the information they contain is still up-to-date.

What does BeCA do?

Apart from providing our members with useful information we recommend our members to report every laser illumination via ATC and Air Safety Report (ASR). Furthermore, we urge the BCAA, Department of Justice and the legislative authorities to establish effective deterrents and enforce compliance.

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