Friday, April 18, 2014

Aviation and law enforcement continue battle of laser-related incidents

For pilots getting a laser beam shined in their eyes, the effects can be similar to having a camera flashed in their eyes at close proximity.

The number of incidents where laser devices — namely laser pointers — have been aimed at aircraft have seen a massive spike in recent years, a trend law enforcement and the aviation industry is working to curb.

Last year, a little less than 4,000 incidents were reported nationwide — the highest on record, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Federal Aviation Administration. In 2005, it was 283 reported incidents.

The Federal Aviation Administration reported 20 laser incidents in Wisconsin last year, including one each in Green Bay and Appleton. Milwaukee had the highest number with nine.

The incidents pose a threat to aircrew, passengers and bystanders. Pointing a laser at an aircraft is a federal crime that can land the offender in prison for up to five years on a single charge.

“We’ve had some pretty explosive growth in the number of hits... And those are only the reported ones,” said Capt. Sean Cassidy, first vice president of the Air Lines Pilots Association . “ here are a lot of folks out there doing this that don’t realize the potential it has to really impair the safe operation of the aircraft.”

Lasers can cause pilot blindness and disorientation, and possible loss of control of the aircraft, which could result in a crash. Low-flying aircraft, commercial flights on approach to an airport or law enforcement and medical helicopters, are among the most susceptible to strikes.

“These laser hits are happening during what we call ‘critical phases of flight’ when the aircraft tends to be a little closer to the ground and the crew is busy,” said Cassidy, a 737 pilot with Alaska Airlines.

It can also harm the pilots causing dazzle, after-image formation, flash blindness as well as retinal bruising. At least 35 incidents have been recorded in which where aircrew required medical attention because of exposure to a laser pointer, according to the FAA and FBI.

What leaves the laser device, a laser pointer for example, as a pinpoint of light, expands to a winder, blinding, beam by the time it reaches an airborne aircraft.

The FAA describes the effects of a laser strike on a pilot as similar to “a camera flash at close proximity or the high-beam headlights of an oncoming car.”

It can take several seconds, or minutes, for flight crew to regain “optimal” sight conditions.

Helicopter crews from ThedaStar of Neenah, which provides medical air transportation for trauma and critically ill patients, have not reported any laser-related incidents. Crews are up to speed on the threat and know how to react if the helicopter is targeted.

“The best thing we can do is educate our crews,” said Jeff Grimm, a flight nurse and safety program coordinator with ThedaStar. “There’s not a whole lot more you can do other than monitor air traffic control, and if someone else has reported something to be alert.”

“There’s not a whole lot we can do to prevent it, but we can mitigate it if it does happen,” Grimm said. “Close your eyes for that moment and avoid looking directly into any of the light and do what we need to do to maintain control of the aircraft.”

Through mid-March, a single laser strike was reported in the state this year — in Milwaukee, according to the regional office of the FAA.

Tom Miller, director of Austin Straubel International Airport in Ashwaubenon, said about a half dozen incidents have been reported at the facility over the past several years.

“The predominate victims have been commercial airlines,” he said. “They’re typically late in the evening.”

The incidents were reported to local and national law enforcement agencies.

Nationwide, California recorded the highest number of incidents last year with 734. It was followed by Texas with 416 and Florida with 326, according to data complied by a website called aimed at being a resource on related information to users, media and others.

The vast majority of illuminations, almost 93 percent, are by green lasers, according to

“It goes from bored school kids to some of the folks who do it a bit more deliberately that tend to be younger or middle-aged males ... who see this as a cheap thrill,” Cassidy said.

“Obviously they are old enough to know better. Those are the folks we’ve seen getting nabbed and arrested by the FBI.”

Last month, a California man was sentenced to 14 years in prison for aiming a laser pointer at a Fresno Police Department helicopter, according to media reports. Investigators say the 26-year-old Clovis, Calif., man shined a laser pointer into the cockpit of the aircraft multiple times during a 2012 incident.

A new federal law that makes it a felony to point a laser device at an aircraft and the related public information push are ongoing efforts to stem the tide of laser-related incidents, Cassidy said.

“In markets where we do have this public awareness campaign, we have actually seen, statistically speaking, the number of hits go down,” he said.

“I think a lot of folks ... don’t really understand the magnitude of what can happen when (a laser) obliterates your ability to see out of the windscreen of an aircraft.”

 By the numbers 
Reported laser incidents involving aircraft in the United States.

2005: 283
2006: 384
2007: 590
2008: 913
2009: 1,527
2010: 2,836
2011: 3,591
2012: 3,482
2013: 3,960

Source: Federal Aviation Administration