The Malta Independent 19 March 2019, Tuesday

Studies show ‘potentially disastrous’ effects of lasers pointed at planes

Malta Independent Friday, 4 October 2013, 09:30 Last update: about 6 years ago

The case of a 48-year-old man from Rabat, who is accused of shining a laser light at an Air Malta plane, “is being blown out of proportion,” his lawyer, Chris Agius told a court this week. But studies show that such an action could have disastrous consequences, whether intended or not. 

“Semi-professional astronomer” David Camilleri, of Rabat, claimed that he was pointing the laser pointer he bought online at the stars. He told the investigating officers that airplanes were not his target and it was not his intention to affect pilots during landing.

His lawyer argued that footballer Lionel Messi recently had 10 lasers pointed at him during a football match, but still managed to score. “If such a cheap device was capable of bringing down a plane terrorists would use them to cause plane crashes,” he said, playing down the effect that such devices can have on airplanes. But what he didn’t count on was the darkness effect. Pilots turn off their cockpit lights for landing, and what might look like a spot from a few metres away actually turns into a blinding light up in the sky.

Studies show that pointing a laser beam at the cockpit of a landing aircraft can have very serious consequences. The same studies show that, while a laser pointer beam may look harmless from the ground, it could be deadly for a tired airline pilot coming in to land at night.

Laser beams are only a few millimeters thick at the source, but as they travel through the air and reach a certain distance, they spread while still retaining their strength. Photos taken from inside an airline cockpit show that if the laser light hits at a particular angle the laser beam can illuminate the whole cockpit with a bright green or red light, and completely blind the pilots. Laser beams can also cause temporary eye damage, with pilots reporting seeing black spots or having blurry vision for some hours after such an occurrence.

This is, in fact, the same situation that was described by Captain James Fenech, who was testifying in court in the case against Mr Camilleri. Captain Fenech, who was not at the controls at that time of the flight, said that, as the plane was approaching the airport from Mellieha, he saw a green light. This occurred for some five times during the landing. At one point he happened to be looking directly at the laser beam and his vision was impaired by a dark spot for around 10 minutes. The jet was flying at 2,500 feet and lower.

First officer Mario Bezzina corroborated this and said that at one point the cockpit “lit up” with green light. “The effect was like that of a searchlight,” he said.

Even though the landing was not affected, both pilots felt that the incident could have had more serious consequences.

Numerous similar cases worldwide

Similar cases have occurred all over the globe in the past few years, with some serious near misses. In July 2011, a laser pointer temporarily blinded a JFK inbound JetBlue pilot.  Two months later a Russian Aeroflot jet with 128 people onboard “almost crashed” after the pilots were blinded by a laser beam pointed by a 15-year-old boy. According to The Moscow Times, “the boy could not sleep and decided to entertain himself by pointing his laser at passing aircraft.” Little did he know that this foolish act could have resulted in a terrible accident. Two months previous, Russian news agency Interfax reported that three planes were hit by a laser beam while landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.

Only last March, a California court sentenced a man to 30 months in jail after he was found guilty of pointing a laser pointer at an airliner during landing and also at a police helicopter. The court sentence was considered to be “a strong message that such acts are not to be considered as fun and games.”

And according to reports, the pilot of the Asiana Airlines crash in Los Angeles earlier this year, which left two people dead, reported being blinded by a strong light source, possibly a laser beam.

In the last 20 years, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recorded more than 3,000 such incidents. In a special report, the FAA said that laser beams can cause temporary damage to the eyes, and such a scenario could prove fatal in the case of the aviation industry.

In October 2012 CNN had reported that laser attacks on planes in the United States had reached “epidemic levels.” And according to the FBI, the number of such incidents last year was projected to reach 3,700. This number would mean a rise of 1,100% on 2005 levels. In New York alone, there were 140 reports of laser attacks in 2010.

The FBI was quoted as saying that laser pointers were becoming cheaper but more powerful, and lasers costing as little as a dollar can have a range of two miles.  

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