In February, a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 on approach to Kalaeloa Airport in Hawaii was hit by the beam from a laser pointer. According to media reports, no one was hurt, but it was the third time in four months that a Coast Guard aircraft operating in the region had been tagged by a laser. Here at Flight Safety Foundation, we fielded a report in January from a pilot at a European airline who days earlier had been on final approach to an airport in Brazil when his aircraft was attacked by “a strong green laser” for about 45 seconds as he was passing the outer marker. The crew’s night vision was affected, but they continued and landed the aircraft without additional problems.
A quick Internet search turns up numerous reports and statements of concern about laser interference with flight from airlines, pilot unions, regulators and law enforcement officials around the world. The laser targeting of aircraft, particularly low-flying aircraft, is growing and dangerous. According to data from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, the number of reported laser incidents grew from 283 in 2005 to 3,591 in 2011, the latest year for which complete data are available.
Despite the increase in attacks, we have been lucky. “No accidents have been attributed to the illumination of crewmembers by lasers, but given the sizeable number of reports and debilitating effects that can accompany such events, the potential does exist,” the FAA says on its website.
But how long will that luck hold out? This is particularly frustrating because it is in many ways a security issue out of the hands of aviation safety professionals. We cannot control the sale of relatively cheap and increasingly powerful handheld lasers, or the urge of individuals to point the devices at aircraft.
Laser attacks are a threat to all types of aviation, and combating them will take coordination among all of the industry’s various interest, regulatory and labor groups. We must step up efforts to remind the public that pointing a laser at an aircraft is dangerous and against the law. We need to encourage flight crews to report all incidents of laser targeting, no matter how seemingly minor, and we need to urge local, provincial/state and national law enforcement agencies and courts to actively enforce the laws and prosecute violators. Beyond that, legislation to restrict the sale of certain lasers should be considered, as should working with laser manufacturers to develop more effective warning labels for their products.