Pilots Warn of a Growing Danger in the Skies

Airlines pilots and the government today sounded the alarm over a growing and dangerous problem: hand-held lasers aimed from the ground right at the cockpits of airplanes.

The numbers are staggering. Through Oct 20, there have been 2,795 reports of lasers pointed at helicopters, small planes and commercial jets this year. That pace means 2011 could break last year’s record of 2,836 laser strikes.

“Over the last few years, the reported incidents of lazing have doubled and doubled and doubled again”, said Sean Cassidy, vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association. “They’re not toys when they’re getting shinned against an airplane; they’re very, very dangerous.”

At the very least, a bright laser suddenly lighting up a cockpit can distract a pilot.

At the worst, it can damage their eyes, temporarily blinding them. This can be especially hazardous during takeoffs and landings. There have been cases where pilots have had to go around for another landing attempt or hand off the controls to their copilots.

Luckily, no accidents have been blamed on laser incidents, but pilots worry that could happen.

“With that many incidents, it’s just a matter of time before someone is distracted in such a manner or possibly physically harmed to the point where it is going to harm the safe operation of the flight, said Cassidy.

Officials believe the increasing number of incidents can be traced to the easy accessibility of high-powered lasers, which have come down substantially in price and can be purchased online.

The cities with the most reported incidents this year are Phoenix, followed by Philadelphia and Chicago.

This summer the Federal Aviation Administration enacted fines of $11,000 for laser incidents, and there’s a move in Congress to make it a federal crime. Some states already can prosecute those who shine lasers at aircraft.

Today, the Federal Aviation Administration announced it is starting a new website to make it easier for pilots to report laser incidents. Those who’ve studied the problem say some of the laser incidents are intentional, while others are not.

“Unfortunately, people on the ground don’t know what they’re doing or what it looks like to the pilots,” said Patrick Murphy, executive director of the International Laser Display Association.

He recalled a case of a youngster in Oklahoma.

“There’s a 12-year-old boy in Tulsa who said, ‘I wanted to say hello to the pilot,’” Murphy said. “He thought it would just be a little tiny dot like he plays with his cat. And he didn’t realize that, instead, it’s a big ball of light that the pilot can’t see past.”

Murphy said that the beams of light spread out the further they go. They can be distracting to pilots approximately 18 miles away, and dangerous if the laser is about one mile away.

Flight instructor Raymond De Haan had a laser aimed at him just a few weeks ago, when he was with a student pilot. Luckily, De Haan said, the laser’s light did not make it into the cockpit

But, he added, “It’s definitely something that impacts you as a pilot. If this happens closer to landing or closer to takeoff and it happens to hit your eye, then you’re, I think, in potential trouble.”