Laser Pointers a Safety Hazard for Flights but Not for Pilots' Eyes, Researchers Say

PHOTO: The effects of a laser pointer on an aircraft is shown in this video demonstration.PlayFAA
WATCH In-Flight Laser Dangers

In spite of new high-wattage lasers, pilots are not at risk for permanent eye damage even if they are temporarily "dazzled" by a laser strike, according to an editorial in the British Journal of Ophthalmology.

Laser strikes against planes have been a growing problem, with 3,894 incidents reported by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2014. However, there is a minimal risk to a pilot's vision, according to researchers. While they pointed out that there are new lasers available on the market with the potential for causing irreparable eye damage, those only affect people in close proximity.

In the paper, the authors explain that when lasers travel through the atmosphere and the cockpit they tend to "scatter," which can be distracting, but is not damaging to a pilot's eyesight.

“In these situations, pilots tend to self focus on a sudden bright light in the cockpit environment and may be dazzled, resulting in an after-image and almost certainly will be distracted,” the authors wrote. “Obviously, if such a distraction occurs at a critical time, such as during landing, the result could be devastating."

Fortunately for pilots behind a cockpit windshield, the chance of retina damage dissipates at 100 meters.

Previously it was difficult to obtain laser pointers above 1 milliwatt of energy, which cannot hurt the eye, but now laser pointers are commercially available with an output above 1,000 milliwatts of energy, which is enough to cause eye damage.

An estimated 150 children in the U.K. have had their vision affected by these kind of lasers, according to the paper. One case of a pilot having retinal damage due to a laser has been reported, but the paper's authors said that case was "suspect" because the energy and distance involved in this particular incident indicate the laser could not have caused damage.

"With the exception of this suspect report, there have been no other recorded incidents of permanent damage resulting from directing ‘laser pointers’ at the aircraft," the authors wrote.

ABC aviation expert John Nance said that he knows of no training to help pilots cope with lasers hitting the cockpit.

"During a critical phase of flight or at takeoff, if you have both pilots simultaneously covering their faces and they can't see the instruments, you're going to increase [the chance] that they're going to over-control or under-control the airplane," said Nance.

He explained that people are unlikely to put pilots in danger by accidentally shining a laser at a plane from the ground, but that it could be a problem if someone intentionally wanted to blind a pilot during a critical part of the flight.