Opinion: The Shocking Statistics behind Aircraft Laser Incidents

Reported Laser Incidents in the United States, Figure Credit: Kerri Phillips

The statistics are there to support it – there has been a significant, steady increase in laser incidents involving aircraft in the United States over the past 6 years. These incidents are not isolated, occurring at airports spanning the globe and affecting both commercial airliners and helicopters. So that leads to the question: is there no end in sight to this trend?

 Imagine you are the pilot of a commercial jetliner preparing for landing at a busy metropolitan airport. You are flying a Boeing 747 aircraft and have hundreds of lives at your fingertips. You and your copilot are communicating with air traffic controllers, preparing the aircraft for landing, and trying to get a visual on the airport landing strip you are assigned. As you are concentrating on your tasks during descent a bright green light illuminates the cockpit distracting you, disorienting you, or even causing “flash blindness”. You have lost your visual on the runway during your approach and handover controls to your copilot, who hopefully has not been similarly affected by the cockpit illumination. Unfortunately, this is no longer a rare event. Commercial airline pilots, police helicopters, and even MedEvac helicopters are increasingly being targeted by people on the ground with lasers.

According to LaserPointerSafety.com, from January 1, 2011 through October 13, 2011 there have been 2,718 reported laser incidents involving 2,733 aircraft. During the same period in 2010, there were 2,140 reported incidents. If there is the same trend in 2011 as in 2010, it is projected that there will be a total of 3,526 incidents by the end of December, a 27% increase from last year. In the 2,718 reported incidents, 43 (1.6%) resulted in a pilot or occupant of the aircraft indicating a flash blindness, afterimage, blurry vision, or eye irritation/headache. Since 2005, there has been a significant increase in reported laser incidents, yet there have been very few arrests and convictions for the perpetrators. Although fines have been placed at $11,000 for those found guilty of tracking an aircraft with a laser in the United States, it has been difficult to locate and arrest those responsible.

Although there has not yet been an accident of a commercial airliner directly related to a laser illuminating the cockpit, airlines have begun training their pilots how to handle such a situation. Police pilots who have had their cockpits illuminated have pursued the individuals and informed police units on the ground of the perpetrators’ location. Laser incidents continue to rise in the United States and abroad. We need to educate the public about the seriousness of their actions and let them know that there will be consequences for such irresponsible acts. At what point will we see a decline in these incidents, and how long until these incidents lead to accidents and loss of life?

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