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February 25, 2014

Laser Attacks on Aircraft a Rapidly Growing Concern

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Written by: Gabe Andino
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Incidents of lasers being pointed at aircraft have unfortunately become a daily occurrence in today’s aviation operating environment. These incidents involve powerful handheld lasers being pointed at aircraft from the ground. This can result in members of the flight crew being blinded temporarily, or in some cases permanently.

According to the FAA, there were 3,960 reported instances of laser strikes on aircraft in 2013, an average of 11 times a day. This was up from just 283 incidents in 2005 when the FBI and FAA first began keeping track of such incidents. Given the adverse safety implications of these actions both government agencies have taken steps to combat the issue. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 included a provision that made it a felony, punishable by five years in jail, to intentionally point the beam of a laser at an aircraft. Last week the FBI upped the ante by offering up to $10,000 for information leading to arrests. This program is being launched in 12 cities accompanied by an educational campaign about the dangers of lasing aircraft.

(Source: FBI)

(Source: FBI)

High-powered lasers are fairly easy to obtain, and as evidenced in a quick eBay search, relatively inexpensive. While manufacturers claim these devices have practical uses in military, industrial, scientific – and even entertainment – applications, they are readily available to those with far less productive uses in mind. The FBI has said that those responsible generally fall into two categories: minors with no criminal record (and apparently nothing better to do), and older men with a criminal history. A portion of apprehended suspects have been criminals dealing in drug running or human trafficking who use lasers to thwart airborne surveillance.

The surge in laser incidents in recent years has been most prevalent in major metropolitan areas such as New York and Los Angeles. The New York area in particular has seen a 39% increase in lasing incidents in the last year. That said, this phenomena isn’t limited to the U.S., as countries such as Russia have dealt with the problem as well.

The effects of laser strikes in the cockpit can vary from a brief annoyance to a considerable health hazard. Pilots have said that the bright green flashes are similar to a camera flash going off in a dark room, sometimes making it difficult to see the instrument panel afterwards. Other times the effects can be longer lasting. In December 2013, a JetBlue Flight was hit by a laser during its approach to JFK, injuring the first officer. The pilot suffered from blurred vision for a week. A direct hit to the eye can burn the cornea, and there have been instances where pilots have been hospitalized due to lasing. To date, no aircraft have crashed due to being hit by a laser, although officials at the FAA believe its only a matter of time before a serious accident occurs.

In 2012 Adam Gardenhire, a 19-year-old California man, was apprehended (see video below) after flashing a laser at a Cessna Citation approaching to land at Burbank, as well as at a police helicopter investigating the incident. The pilot of the Citation experienced temporary vision problems as a result of the attack. Gardenhire was sentenced to 30 months in prison, a strong message that there are serious repercussions to what some may erroneously consider harmless pranks. Law enforcement officials have managed to apprehend an increasing number of suspects and the aviation community can only hope that the federal government’s crackdown on these incidents leads to a reduction in these events.

Gabe Andino is an Associate Editor for NYCAviation.com, aviation enthusiast and airport management professional residing in New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter @OGAndino



About the Author

Gabe Andino





 
 

 

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