Monday, March 26, 2012

Air crew can be blinded

AIRLINE pilots are being targeted with potentially deadly laser beams from the ground – and most of the incidents centre on Cape Town International Airport.

The Tygerberg area is particularly dangerous for pilots flying over the city.

A permit is needed to purchase the specific hand-held laser devices, which emit strong green or blue beams that can be up to 3 000 times more powerful than a car’s lights and which are commonly used by stargazers.

But authorities say these are being sold on the sly.

Yesterday the Air Traffic and Navigation Services (ATNS) Company of SA said that between January 1, 2010 and February 29 this year, 181 incidents of laser beams being used on aircraft at major airports in the country had been reported.

More than half of these incidents, 106 out of the 181, were reported at Cape Town International Airport.

Strong laser beams directed at an aircraft could temporarily or permanently blind a pilot, Allan van der Heiden, an investigation and standards specialist with the ATNS, said yesterday.

“A pilot can also be startled and lose night vision, which can actually lead to an aircraft crash,” he said.

Van der Heiden recalled two recent incidents involving laser beams, at OR Tambo International Airport, where a plane had gone off course, and at Lanseria Airport.

He said several reports had been received about laser beams being used from the vicinity of Tygerberg, which he described as a “final approach” area for pilots heading to Cape Town International Airport.

“It’s the most critical time for a pilot,” he said.

A laser beam did not have to be used at or near the airport to distract pilots and, Van der Heiden said:
  • A blue laser could be used over an 80km distance.
  •  A green one could be used over 40kms.
He said the number of reported laser beam incidents was increasing annually and pranksters could be behind most of these.

Yesterday Margaret Viljoen, an executive committee member of the Airline Pilots Association of SA and an aircraft captain, said she had been a victim of laser beam “attacks”.

“It’s quite startling. It’s like being in a dark room and all of a sudden someone shines a bright light … it distracts,” she said. In six months, 56 laser beam incidents had been reported in Cape Town, and she had been a victim three times.

“If you’re going to get attacked, it’s likely going to be in Cape Town,” she said.

“Unfortunately it happens in a critical phase of flight, so it’s not like you can wear special glasses.”

Viljoen said pilots sometimes switched off the exterior lights of an aircraft so that people on land with laser beams would have difficulty spotting the plane.

“But according to the law, you have to have the lights on. So in avoiding these people, you’re contravening the law. We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” she said.

Viljoen said aircraft crew were trained on what to do in the event of being lasered.

She said reports of lasers being used on aircraft had surfaced in the US about a decade ago and in SA about five years ago. After the US attacks, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of SA had warned in a circular that the beams could result in temporary loss of vision and spatial disorientation and recommended that those exposed to the beam go for an eye examination afterwards.

Yesterday a Cape Town-based senior airline captain, who declined to be identified, named a wine estate in Durbanville as one of the points a laser beam was used from and a point along Voortrekker Road near Plattekloof as another point from where someone had repeatedly used a laser.

Airports Company of SA (Acsa) communications manager Deidre Davids referred queries about laser beams to the ATNS and various airlines.

She said once an incident was reported to police, it became a policing matter.

Yesterday an ATNS press release said an aviation security committee was addressing the laser beam problem.


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