Norad implements laser warnings in Washington

 - October 11, 2006, 8:09 AM

The FAA and general aviation organizations have stepped up efforts to inform pilots flying in the airspace around the Washington and Baltimore areas about a new laser light system the North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad) is using to warn unauthorized aircraft they have violated the national capital region air defense identification zone (ADIZ) and/or the smaller flight restricted zone (FRZ) within it.

Norad is operating the ground-based warning system from its head- quarters inside Cheyenne Mountain, Colo., using radar tracking to pinpoint the violating aircraft. The system targets only aircraft that are unauthorized or unidentified and unresponsive.

The FAA posted a “special notice” on its Web site that the red/ red/green laser “may be directed at specific aircraft suspected of making unauthorized entry into the ADIZ/FRZ and are on a heading or flight path that may be interpreted as a threat or that operate contrary to the operating rules for the ADIZ/ FRZ.” The agency also e-mailed warning notices to pilots registered with its Web site.

The visual warning system (VWS) is easy for pilots to spot from among the ground clutter of the national capital region, which encompasses most of the area from Washington Dulles International Airport to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The VWS does not injure the eyes of aircrew or passengers, regardless of altitude or distance from the source. Although the laser can be seen from as far as 20 nm from its ground location, its intensity is much less than a sun glint and less than the maximum power the FAA allows for commercial laser shows in critical flight areas.

MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory developed the low-intensity lasers, which are considered to be Class I, the safest category. By comparison, green or red laser pointers are typically Class IIIa, which have the potential to cause eye damage if viewed for longer than a quarter of a second.

The narrowness of the beam of light minimizes the probability that a non-intruder aircraft will be lit up when the device is directed at the offending aircraft. If another airplane approaches the same azimuth and elevation as determined by radar data, the warning will terminate.

“If you are in communication with ATC and this signal is directed at your aircraft, we advise you to communicate immediately with ATC that you are being illuminated by a visual warning signal,” the FAA special notice said. “If this signal is directed at you and you are not communicating with ATC, we advise you to turn to a heading away from the center of the FRZ/ADIZ as soon as possible and immediately contact ATC on an appropriate frequency or, if unsure of the frequency, contact ATC on VHF guard 121.5 or UHF guard 243.0.”

Military Interception

According to the FAA, failure to follow the recommended procedures “may result in interception by military aircraft and/or the use of force.” It added that the notice applies to all aircraft operating within the ADIZ, including aircraft belonging to the Defense Department, law enforcement and aeromedical operations.

In addition to the Washington Air National Guard F-16s based at Andrews AFB, the national capital region has surface-to-air missiles at certain locations, including the White House. Other surveillance systems are also at work, and the U.S. Customs and Border Service operates two Black Hawks and a Cessna Citation to intercept unidentified aircraft.

Multiple laser sites are in place to provide coverage of the entire D.C. ADIZ and the FRZ within it, and each “turret” can illuminate and track a particular aircraft. Norad said the VWS is visible up to 15 nm during the day and up to 20 nm at night with good VMC. Norad can use the lights only during VMC because they will not penetrate moisture.

Each turret contains a 1.5-watt red and green laser that is diffused through lenses to produce wide, low-intensity beams covering an area roughly 100 feet in diameter 10 nm from the turret. The turrets are operated by military personnel.

AIN took a night demo flight in a Coast Guard Knighthawk over downtown Washington. Even with Robert F. Kennedy Stadium lit up for a night baseball game and the plethora of red lights on various towers, buildings and surrounding Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, it was impossible for even the most casual observer to miss the laser warning system. It cannot be seen from the ground, however.

Observers from AOPA and the National Air Transportation Association described the laser as bright enough to be seen but not so bright as to be blinding or excessively distracting, even inside the cockpit of a small general aviation aircraft. NBAA advised aviators to review the military intercept procedures in the Aeronautical Information Manual.

The VWS is distinct from other light signals FAA controllers use and is currently operational exclusively in the Washington-area ADIZ. The FAA said its notice does not change procedures established for reporting unauthorized laser illumination as published in Advisory Circular 70-2.