For Your Pilot: Laser Danger Remains for Crews

Despite awareness of the danger and reporting systems, the incidence of laser-pointing at aircraft continues to rise significantly, according to data from the International Federation of Airline Pilot Associations (IFALPA).

In the U.S. alone, thousands of laser strikes are officially reported by pilots every year. These strikes can result in distraction, disruption, disorientation and, in extreme cases, blindness and incapacitation, notes an IFALPA position paper.

The number of laser incidents reported to the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in 2017 was 989. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) received 6,753 reports in the same period, notes Dr. Mark Bray, executive scientist at BAE Systems.

Most attacks are reported to take place during takeoff and landing, or on hovering police helicopters. “They are caused by cheap, high-powered handheld devices that are readily available on the internet. The impact of these attacks include distraction, obscuring of instruments and dials, as well as a high probability for short-lived ‘flash’ blindness and even permanent eye damage,” noted BAE Systems.

Although most attacks happen when the aircraft is near the ground, events are now being recorded at altitudes greater than 8,000 feet, according to IFALPA. “So far, when pilots have been attacked on final approach, they have been able to hand control to the other pilot to complete the landing safely. We are extremely concerned that as the power, range, and divergence of the beams increase, we will see events where both pilots are effectively incapacitated close to the ground, with likely catastrophic consequences,” IFALPA says.

Recommended Course of Action

When laser pointing to aircraft does occur, the flight crew is required to conduct the relevant emergency procedure. An IFALPA medical briefing leaflet lists recommended actions when laser illumination events take place. The procedure requires pilots to look away from the laser beam and shield the eyes if possible. IFALPA further recommends that pilot´╗┐s avoid rubbing their eyes to reduce the potential for corneal abrasion. The affected crewmember should determine if other crewmembers are also exposed. If not, they should consider handing over the control of the aircraft.

According to the IFALPA medical briefing leaflet, depending upon the situation and ATC clearance, the flight crew should also maneuver to avoid the laser beam, e.g. on landing, a missed approach may be appropriate. The pilots should further consider engaging the autopilot and other relevant flight modes and they should turn up the cockpit lights to minimize any further illumination effects.

“As soon as flight safety allows it, the flight crew should check for dark/disturbed areas in vision, one eye at a time. If either pilot is incapacitated to a degree that may affect the safety of the aircraft, the crew should declare an emergency (Pan or Mayday as appropriate),” noted IFALPA. “The crew should then inform air traffic control (ATC) and, if the situation allows it, provide as much information as possible (laser direction, color, length of exposure, flash or intentional tracking, etc.). The use of the ‘IDENT’ button may assist ATC and authorities in pinpointing the location of origin of a laser attack.”
IFALPA also recommends that the flight crew fill in an air safety report (ASR) and, if any visual symptoms persist after landing, get an ophthalmologic examination.

IFALPA believes that rather than having to deal with laser dangers in flight, the best line of defense is effective ground security to prevent them in the first place.