Laser Incident Numbers Climb as Enforcement Increases

 - May 21, 2012, 4:45 PM
Laser beams have temporarily blinded pilots and forced crewmembers to take evasive action.

Numbers released on May 15 by the FAA dramatize growing concerns over increasing numbers of people who continue to shine laser pointers at passing aircraft. While relatively harmless in initial appearance, laser beams from even handheld pointers have temporarily blinded pilots and forced crewmembers to take evasive action.

The FAA began tracking these incidents in 2005 when 283 were recorded. By 2008 the number had climbed to 913 and by 2010, 2,836 laser-pointer incidents were recorded. The data released last week showed 3,592 such events in 2011, a 26-percent increase over the previous year.

Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has directed the FAA, in cooperation with the Department of Justice, to step up enforcement action against anyone caught shining a laser at an airplane. “We will pursue the toughest penalties against anyone caught putting the safety of the flying public at risk,” he said.

The FAA has already initiated enforcement action against 28 individuals since June 2011 and opened dozens more investigations. The current maximum penalty for a single laser incident is an $11,000 fine, although one individual was fined nearly $31,000 for repeated violations.

Anyone caught in a laser incident, who also carries an airmen’s certificate, may also face revocation of his or her certificate, in addition to financial penalties.


DJ 's picture

Instead of making another crime with impossible enforcement, FAA should pursue the development of simple countermeasures to this non-existent "threat."
Passive, very sharp, bandstop filters that can be incorporated into eyewear are already in existence. At the moment, such lenses are fully effective against the 532 nM (and other) wavelength and have no deleterious effect except that they eliminate laser light.. The current obstacle is cost, which, if economies of scale apply, can be reduced to acceptable levels.
If the need is sufficient, there are more techniques than one that can eliminate the threat.
After all, fighter aircraft have built-in laser filtering to eliminate really dangerous high-powered IR lasers...and others...
Green lasers are used as pointers for astronomical observations. Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether a bright object in the sky is an airplane or a celestial object. Let's not turn legitimate students and sky observers into criminals. Eliminate the threat by eliminating the deleterious effect.

Mike Blasdel's picture

I agree with DJ, it is very easy to have available a pair of laser safety goggles which fit over your regular glasses. They are inexpensive (relatively) and very effective. I have used them in the lab and can hardly see a green laser (532 nm wavelength). If all pilots had them available, they could don them at the first sign of a laser incident. Once the degenerate public (those doing this sordid thing with lasers) figured that they were totally ineffective against pilots, they would stop doing it.

Bob Lilley's picture

I saw a Boeing manager playing around with a laser in a local bar not far from Boeing's Essington plant

Ernest Kaiser's picture

DJ, "Green lasers are used as pointers for astronomical observations. Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether a bright object in the sky is an airplane or a celestial object. "
Pray do tell, what astronomical observation can be made with a hand held laser?And, just in case, if you do not know what you are pointing at, DON"T POINT!

tjm's picture

"Pray do tell, what astronomical observation can be made with a hand held laser?"

I agree, don't point if you don't know. But they work very well for star gazing and they don't call them 'star pointers' for nothing.

On another note, exactly how does a laser-to-aircraft bust go down? Would this be a new reality TV topic?

RB's picture

The best defense is a good offense. There are too many people with zero sense of respect and too much time on their hands. This problem will only continue, and cannot be entirely addressed by ground enforcement and penalties. I have to agree in principle with DJ. Would it not be possible to design aircraft glass (plexiglass) that is impervious to laser light?

Chad Trautvetter's picture

I don’t suppose that the laser industry and astronomical laser users would be willing to pay the hundreds of millions of dollars for general FAA certification of these laser-proof aircraft windows, and then individual FAA supplemental type certifications for each aircraft type that is currently in service? You just can’t replace an aircraft windshield with whatever you want to – each windshield has to pass FAA requirements via a battery of tests, including bird strike tests. Also, aircraft windshields are heated in jets and many turboprops, which complicate certification even more. So while one could easily design a laser-proof aircraft windshield, getting it certified is both a timely and costly endeavour.

And I have to ask: why can’t people just follow a federal law and not point a laser pointer at aircraft? That costs nothing more than some common sense…

Ray Thompson's picture

I operate a laser welder, very powerful, and the cabinet has a see thru window that has a safety filter built in to protect passersby. This material is available to clad side windows of aircraft. Here is one site. -click on 'Laser Window'-
I can only guess that the offending laser light came from a side window. Line of sight thru the windshield seems unlikely, coming from a ground source. -just guessing -

Kevin's picture

The size of fine is irrelevant. We can have a death penalty and still people would play with their lasers. However, $100 fine every time would have much better effect.
Having said that I think that big tag with "DO NOT POINT AT AIRCRAFT" warning could be added to all lasers that are sold. Some people are just too stupid to understand what they are doing.

Robert P. Mark's picture

DJLet’s not turn legitimate students and sky observers into criminals. Eliminate the threat by eliminating the deleterious effect.

Good point. I don’t want to see that either, but the guy pointing a laser at a passing Boeing inbound to ORD, is more than just annoying like some student throwing spitballs.

I hate to suggest warning labels because no matter what we try there will always be someone who thinks it would be cool to see if THEIR laser will paint on the airplane as it flies over.

But new pilot glasses … new windshields?? Give me a break. I’d support a ban on the draned things first.

And BTW, who was the comedian who said, “You can’t fix stupid.”

John's picture

"But new pilot glasses … new windshields?? Give me a break. I’d support a ban on the draned things first."

even if you could get everyone in the united states to support a ban, flights to other countries wouldnt have that ban.

remember the issue here is the safety of the people in and below the aircraft.

a fine to citizens plus a requirement to airlines/pilots to have readily available laser filtering glasses is a combo of offence and defense that protects both in and out of our country.

your supported solution is to expand the nanny state and provide little to no actual protection for those in or below the aircraft. you are a perfect example of being unable to fix stupid.

Steve Kane's picture

It is important to note that irresponsible use of lasers is also a threat to private, general aviation aircraft.

Jeff's picture

Maybe the FAA should try educating people rather them bust them after the fact. Nobody thinks “Oh, it might cost me $11,000 if I point this laser at a airplane” They’re thinking “how cool is my new laser, I wonder if it would go as far as the Airplane”. All while not realizing the consequences. How about educational signs in the airports and advertising?

DJ's picture

It was Ron White who said "You can't fix stupid."
There's a serious message there. It's a hell of a lot easier to prevent a problem than to outlaw a human contribution.
For a hint, consider "the war on...." fill in the blank.
Of course a laserproof canopy retrofit would be silly, but prophylactic glasses would be an easy fix. Let the FAA spend a few bucks developing something that can actually be useful.
Remember American ingenuity?
The military use green lasers to signal automobiles approaching armed checkpoints. Maybe the idea of a filter interferes with their procedures.
By the way, I'm a pilot, have advanced degrees in electrical engineering, and before retiring worked in the electronic countermeasures field.
I also own a green laser, and was a successful expert witness in a case where an innocent man would have been destroyed because some federal prosecutor chasing green lasers needed a win.
Think about something other than a knee-jerk "fry the &$@" reaction. It's a win-win.

Loretta Newburg's picture

The most dignified response that I can offer to the FAA's "alarm" over laser incidents is, "Nice Try"! This newest manufactured concern over this phenomenon is a new low even for the federal government! Their statistics are no doubt not worth the paper that they are laser-printed on. Here's an idea, restrain the ruby-red
laser pointers that equip the terrorist weapons carried by your now-ubiquitous fascist SWAT teams and that would save a lot more lives than criminalizing a phony threat to commericial aviation! Once Again, Nice Try!

Robert P. Mark's picture

So Loretta, you see 3,500 recorded instances of some dummy pointing a laser at the cockpit of a passing aircraft as a hysterical “alarm” rung by the FAA?

Seeing this all as a fictional delusion is an “interesting” response.

There are many, many instances of a pilot needing to take control of the airplane after a pointer aimed up from the ground temporarily blinded the other crewmember.

And the reason the FAA would start a ruckus about this would be what exactly?

Park McGraw's picture

The following is a copy of my Sept 2009 posting for the Buffalo NY News regarding a laser incident involving a police helicopter.


Give me a break.

“really a burning sensation in your eyes," Caffery, said. If the hand held laser in question was 5mW or less at 532 nm (green), all I have to say is “WHAT DRAMA”. Point of reference, I have worked in the high energy laser field for ~20 years, safety trained per ANSI 135.1 and have built kilo watt class lasers for US military purposes. If what the pilot is reporting is true, then we also need to keep this pilot out of the sun and away from car high beams.

This fear of lasers has grown out of proportion as gross public ignorance has damage how people perceive the device. Given an aircraft altitude of 500 ft min. (FAA rule) not including any angular component for Line of Sight (LOS), a hand held laser could not be placed long enough to remain on target (pilots eyes) on a moving platform beyond a person's aversion respond time. The spot diameter of the beam along with the beam divergence, incident angle of the laser relative to aircraft windshield, to the amount of suspended aerosols in the air (scatter) would place the energy level per square cm extremely low and certainly no longer coherent.

Naturally the pilots noticed the light since your eyes at night are sensitive to the Oxygen line (green), but noticing the light does not in itself mean the light is dangerous. The typical auto driver has more to worry about oncoming car head lights on a dark highway then what any pilot would have from a 5mW hand held 532 nm laser given the variables involved. As for the safety studies, read them, they are weak at best. What we have here are prima donna pilots that feel they own the sky. Last, I use to fly a Cessna 152, 172 and L-29 jet.

Connor Vlakancic's picture

Find someplace where there is a headlight beam reflector (which is not even moving) on a bridge abutment and stand a football field length (300 feet) away. Try to point accurately enough to get a reflection. If you still have time to waste, find a cat in a tree (at maybe 50 feet away) and try to get a reflection from the cat's eyes... go home, the cat is laughing at you.

Lasers are not a pending problem. New more $$$ pilot User Fees are all pilots worst danger!

DJ's picture

Mr McGraw:
A 5 milliwatt laser is out of range of potential eye damage beyond a distance of 75 feet. For a 100 milliwatt laser, it's about 300 feet.
FAA has done extensive work using real lasers in cockpit simulations and concluded that in a small percentage of cases, 532 nM laser illumination can temporarily cause deleterious effects in some parts of landing procedure. It depends on the pilot.
By the way, FAA uses a one-watt three-color laser system to warn aircraft entering the Washington, DC prohibited zone. They deliberately decolumnate the beam to decrease the range at which eye damage occurs.

Jade Carlson's picture

I would think the biggest hazard is pilot distraction rather than eye damage. Gusty crosswind approach at night, maybe a fault light on, and some yahoo shines a dazzling light into the cockpit and can't even keep it still...

The problem is technologies like lasers put a lot of power to harm in people's hands. Unlike firearms, there's no forensic evidence like ballistics / powder, or sound, so the psychological barrier to causing harm when a person is cranky is lower. At our local airport, ~2/3 of the noise complaints are from 2 households: I bet they feel tempted to retaliate.

I'd vote for filter goggles, can be had for way less than the typical headsets etc we blow money on. And maybe have the FAA look into an automatic laser-triangulation system (like gunfire detection) to install at airports?

chris's picture

I have been a law enforcement pilot for 20 years. The last decade has swelled with lasers being used as a tactic by criminals to defeat air units in the area. I have had 34 laser incidents during my career, the latest being April 2012. The 20mw green laser was used by a suspect to cause my aircraft to vacate the area that we were searching for an armed robbery crew. Without discussing the entire incident and the list of symptoms that I suffered (called mythical by some on this blog) I can assure that these new lasers are very capable of causing significant eye damage.
All of our pilots have baseline eye/retinal mapping. This incident cased multiple retinal spot burns and a vitrious gel detachment to my eye....Please understand that this area in not a joke nor should you talk as though it is. Good men and women are being injured by this often.

Tropos's picture

I have tried a pair of laser-protective glasses designed for airline pilots in simulators and in flight. I've shown them to hundreds of airline pilots, instructors, and FAA check pilots. They are moderately tinted, reducing night visibility somewhat. The pilots will not wear them, not because they reduce their vision, but because if any incident happened they might be blamed for wearing these glasses that reduce vision. They would have to be wearing them for every night takeoff and landing for true protection.

Airline pilots work in an extremely dangerous legal environment. They are frequently fined, fired, or lose their license for the slightest deviation from rules, "standard practice", or common sense, which are frequently not the same. The FAA had a hand in developing these glasses, but gave no official approval, which would have made all the difference to the pilots, but the FAA didn't want the responsibility.

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