Lasers an Increasing Risk to Pilots

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has reported an increasing number of incidents where pilots have had lasers pointed in the cockpit during takeoff and landing at numerous major airports in the United States. Although there have not been reports of any of these laser incidents causing aircraft accidents, the threat is still present. Many of these high-powered lasers can be purchased online and are powerful enough to illuminate cockpits, temporarily blind or cause eye damage to pilots, and make instruments difficult to view according to an article by Andy Pasztor.

The rise in incidents is alarming, and this increase in number of incidents has coincided with an expanding hobbyist market for handheld lasers far more powerful than a standard laser pointer, according to an article by Dan Elliott and Laurie Kellman of the Associated Press. The number of reported incidents where lasers have been pointed in the cockpit of airplanes and helicopters has increased significantly from 300 in 2005 to 1,527 in 2009. In 2010, that number nearly doubled, with 2,836 laser incidents reported to the FAA. During some of these reports, the pilots have had to relinquish control of the aircraft to another pilot due to the inability to see in the cockpit.

2010 Laser Incidents - FAA Report, AP

This growing problem has caught the attention of the Senate, who approved an amendment on Thursday to make pointing handheld lasers at aircraft a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison according to the Associated Press. When asked about the increase in incidents, Senator Jay Rockefeller, D-WV said this: “This is a national security threat. As the technology increases, it’s going to blind pilots permanently. Maybe if they are accurate, they blind both the pilot and co-pilot. …There will be a future for terrorists in this business.” Current federal law stating that the interference with commercial airlines is illegal has a “gap” that reduces the FBI’s ability to investigate and prosecute laser incidents involving helicopters since they are not considered “mass transit”. Numerous incidents have been reported involving police and news helicopters, aircraft that are particularly vulnerable to lasers due to the lower flight altitude.

The Air Line Pilots Association has initiated a campaign aimed at increasing the public awareness about these intentional and dangerous acts as well as encouraging an expansion of the “laser-free zones” surrounding airports. The union, represented by newly elected union president Lee Moak, is also encouraging new air-traffic-control safeguards and pilot procedures in the event of a laser threat, according to Andy Pasztor’s article.

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