UPDATE: February 15, 2016
LASERS ARE BACK in the news again. This time, on Sunday, a Virgin Atlantic Airways jet bound for New York was forced to return to London after the first officer was reportedly injured by a laser strike in the cockpit.
We’ve been dealing with this phenomenon for over a decade now, but the number of incidents has been increasing. Not unlike the controversy surrounding drones, its mostly a matter of proliferation. Just as there are lot more drones around, there are a lot more laser pointers in the hands of a lot more people than there used to be. They’re small, inexpensive, and easy to obtain. And as with drones, users of these devices aren’t necessarily aware of their potential hazard. Many hobbyists see their lightweight drones as all but harmless, not realizing just how dangerous a high-speed impact with an aircraft could be. Similarly, it’s only human nature, I suppose, to direct your laser at something passing overhead. What’s the harm?
Well, laser pointers might be small, but they are able to cause temporary blindness and serious eye injury, even from a considerable distance, the ramifications of which are pretty obvious if the target is an airline crew during a critical phase of flight. Hitting two pilots squarely in the face through the refractive, wraparound windshield of a cockpit would be very difficult and entail a substantial amount of luck, and a temporarily or partially blinded crew would still have the means to stabilize a climbing or descending airplane. Still, it’s unsafe, and just a stupid thing to be doing.
The problem, by and large, isn’t one of nefarious intent. It’s one of not knowing better. And for those who do know better, it’s recklessness. And as with the drones issue, the solution isn’t going to be some elaborate technological fix or attempting to regulate users into compliance, though there’s certainly room for imposing stiffer criminal penalties against abusers. It comes down to awareness, and ordinary common sense.
In the immortal words of Gordon Gano: Don’t shoot, shoot, shoot that thing at me!
Regulators and airlines both have been taking the problem seriously. Here in the U.S., any laser strike must be immediately reported to air traffic control. The FAA’s website includes online forms through which pilots can submit the details of an incident.
One thing to be happy about is that people haven’t been making a presumptive link to terrorism. For starters, actually downing a jet with a laser would be highly difficult, and terrorists don’t waste their time or resources on such low-probability schemes.
It wasn’t always this way. In 2005 I did a series of columns for the website Salon covering a rash of laser incidents. When I go back and read those columns, it’s astonishing to recall just how paranoid many people were. This was more than three years after the terror attacks of 2001, but apparently we were still on hair-trigger alert.
In December of 2005 the FBI and Department of Homeland Security released a memo stating that terrorists had explored the viability of deploying high-intensity lasers as weapons. Around this time pilots began calling in an unusual number of laser hits. Immediately certain people assumed the worst. In fact the FBI/DHS memo was one of 160 bulletins released during a two-year span, and cited nothing more than terrorists “exploring” laser attacks. Just as they’d explored the use of nuclear weapons, biological weapons, guns, knives, car bombs, plastic explosives, and so forth. DHS itself admitted to having no specific information. But that didn’t stop the scaremongering.
“It’s not some kid,” said Paul Rancatore, speaking in a news story about the laser reports from pilots. Rancatore was deputy chairman of the security committee at the Allied Pilots Association, the union representing crews at American Airlines. “It’s too organized,” he warned.
“It sounds like an organized effort to cause airline accidents,” echoed Loren Thompson, professor of military technology at Georgetown University, speaking in the same article. “What we’re talking about is a fairly powerful [laser]. That’s not the sort of thing you pick up at a military surplus store.”
In fact it almost certainly was “some kid,” and the types of devices Mr. Thompson was referring to were, and remain, readily for sale — the kinds of commercial lasers frequently employed in concerts, light shows, civilian construction work, and numerous other industries. All along, Federal guidelines have restricted the use of these things, but such rules aren’t easily enforced.
And on and on it went, this pandering to overanxious imaginations. The t-word had been spliced into the very DNA of our collective societal psyche. Any anomaly that was potentially harmful and not instantly solvable was apt to be viewed under the dark cloak of “terrorism” — a toxic pathology that, while maybe not as potent as it once was, has polluted our politics and culture ever since. Here in 2016 we’re no longer quite so hysterical, but too often, still, we choose an emotional response over one of reason and good sense.
As a pilot, I’ve never had a laser encounter, but I remember something that occurred one night in the early 1990s, during an approach into Newark. It was a high-intensity spotlight, not a laser, but the effect was similar. I was captain of an old Beech-99, a fifteen-seater. We were skirting the lower edge of Manhattan along the Hudson River, when a wayward (perhaps intentionally so) beam from a light show atop the World Trade Center — ironically enough, I guess — caught and tracked our turboprop briefly, filling the cockpit and cabin with a fiery incandescence.