The Malta Independent 5 December 2021, Sunday

Air Malta laser beam incident one of ‘hundreds’ of cases

Malta Independent Tuesday, 8 October 2013, 09:30 Last update: about 8 years ago

The latest incident of a laser beam hitting an airliner’s cockpit during its final approaches was one of “hundreds” of cases that occurred in the past few years, according to ALPA President Domenic Azzopardi. However, most cases go unreported as they are not deemed to be threatening.

Speaking to The Malta Independent, Captain Azzopardi said that a number of pilots had experienced similar incidents in the past. Similar cases still happen from time to time, but are usually not reported if they are not considered to be too serious. There were several cases where a report was lodged but the perpetrator not found. 

A 49-year-old Rabat “semi-professional astronomer” who is accused of pointing a laser beam at a landing Air Malta plane was immediately identified, but many others get away with it, according to Mr Azzopardi

In some countries, the problem is much more serious, and airports, including London’s, occasionally issue a ‘warning to crew’ about the possibility of laser strikes. The Malta International Airport has never issued such a warning, Captain Azzopardi told this newspaper.

Laser shows from village feasts or night clubs are also visible from the air, but rarely affect pilots.

Most anti-laser solutions not practical, commercially available

The recent court case, as well as the spike in serious incidents in the US and Europe has highlighted the need for anti-laser protective equipment. The situation in the US was some time ago described as “an epidemic”, with a number of near misses, and some reports said that the fatal Asiana Airlines crash could have been caused by a laser beam or some similar light source.

There is an international effort to come up with viable solutions to combat this phenomenon, however most proposals are not yet considered to be commercially or practically viable.

Laser safety goggles are one of the options currently available, and these have reportedly been used by LAPD helicopter pilots during searches for persons who have illuminated other aircraft. A US company that produces protective goggles, which in fact look more like sunglasses, says that its products reduce laser beams by 99% without affecting the pilots’ vision of the instrument panel. In fact, videos of tests carried out by the company show that, while laser beams are still very much visible to the human eye while wearing the glasses, the effects are drastically reduced.

Also on the list of proposed countermeasures are “Active Smart Goggles,” which detect laser lights and activate a blocking or dimming process based on the power of the wavelength. However it is not known if such equipment is in production or in use, and if so, it is very much likely that they are used only in military operations.

Another option is to equip glare shields that can be pulled down over the wind shield manually by pilots in the event of a laser beam hitting the cockpit, but no further information about them is readily available.

Planes can also be equipped with laser detectors, but these would only serve to detect and record data about the wavelength and power of the laser.

Pilot training in Malta and abroad

Another important factor is pilot education and training. Pilots in the US are given training and a set of procedures to follow in the event of a laser strike. These include reactivating the autopilot or handing control over to the second pilot if they are not affected. Pilots should also consider the option of aborting the landing.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) suggest that pilots on laser strike prone routes brighten the cockpit lights, as eyes that are accustomed to light could be less affected. It also suggests that pilots flying these routes keep a pair of laser goggles handy, however they should not be routinely used on ‘normal’ flights.

Air Malta pilots train every six months and practice the proper procedures to be followed in the case of pilot incapacitation, such as in the event of a heart attack.  However the training exercises are not specifically related to laser pointers. In the recent Air Malta case, the Captain was temporarily affected by the laser beam, but at the time the First Officer was at the controls.

Captain Domenic Azzopardi said that the procedure laid down by Air Malta requires the unaffected pilot to take charge of the aircraft in the event of temporary blindness. However this leaves unanswered the question of what would happen if both pilots were blinded by the laser beam?

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