Laser Attack

Laser Attack

Laser illumination of aircraft continues to be a significant threat to aviation. BALPA is working with a number of agencies (including the CAA, the UK Flight Safety Committee and the Police) to address this issue but we are still seeing incidents in the UK involving lasers being directed at aircraft, both fixed wing and rotary, during all phases of flight. Laser illumination of an aircraft will inevitably startle and dazzle the pilots and may result in significant pilot distraction. There is now a widely held concern that a laser illumination event may result in a serious injury being sustained by a pilot during flight, with the associated erosion of flight safety margins.

The rapid proliferation of visible laser beams in airspace has resulted in a multitude of documented cases of flight crew laser illuminations since the early 1990s. Worldwide, various ALPA’s (Airline Pilots’ Associations) have for many years aggressively urged the authorities to address the laser problem, but it has proven a difficult problem to thwart. To date only a handful of perpetrators of a laser incident have been prosecuted and convicted of this crime. Despite continuing law enforcement efforts to deter and apprehend miscreants there were 1440 reported laser strikes on aircraft in the UK and over 3800 in the US in 2014 alone.

Using lasers or other lights against an aircraft creates a summary offence under two Air Navigation Order (ANO) Articles:
ANO Article 222: “A person must not in the United Kingdom direct or shine any light at any aircraft in flight so as to dazzle or distract the pilot of the aircraft”.
If the distraction or dazzle is serious, the person may be guilty of an offence of reckless endangerment under:

ANO Article 137: “A person must not recklessly or negligently act in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft, or any person in an aircraft”.
The courts have the option of punishing this latter crime with a prison term.
In February 2013, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued Advisory Circular (AC) No. 70-2A (which replaced 70-2 from 2005), “Reporting of Laser Illumination of Aircraft” in response a significant increase in the numbers of unauthorized illumination of aircraft by lasers. That AC requires all pilots to immediately report any laser sightings to air traffic controllers. It then requires controllers to share that information through the federal DEN - Domestic Events Network (a phone line that is constantly monitored by safety, security and law enforcement personnel). Air traffic controllers will then work with the police to identify the source of the lasers to ensure a rapid police response to the scene. One of the most significant changes from the 2005 circular was the addition of the following paragraph:
“FAA and other governmental studies show the exposure of aircrews to laser illumination may cause hazardous effects (e.g., distraction, glare, afterimage, flash blindness, and, in extreme circumstances, persistent or permanent visual impairment), which could compromise safety by adversely interfering with the ability of aircrews to carry out their responsibilities. ATC regards a laser illumination incident as an in-flight emergency, and will treat them as such, until the aircrew states otherwise.”

How a laser event may affect pilots:

A laser illumination event can result in temporary vision loss associated with:

  • Flash blindness - a visual interference that persists after the source of illumination has been removed;
  • After-image - a transient image left in the visual field after exposure to a bright light;
  • Glare - obscuration of an object in a person’s field of vision due to a bright light source located near the same line of sight.
Laser effects on pilots occur in four stages of increasing seriousness:
1.      Startle and Distraction
2.      Disruption to visual field (dazzle)
3.      Disorientation
4.      Incapacitation
Given the many incidents of cockpit illuminations by lasers, the potential for an accident definitely exists but the fact that there have been no laser-related accidents to date (October 2015) indicates that the hazard associated with current lasers can be successfully managed. As the power increases so does the concern surrounding potential outcomes. Technologies are available to mitigate the effects of lasers, but are still immature, do not provide full-spectrum protection and are unlikely to be installed on airline flight decks in the foreseeable future.

  • Shield the eyes from the light source with a hand or a hand-held object and avoid looking directly into the beam. It is possible that a laser successfully aimed at the flight deck will be presaged by unsuccessful attempts to do so; these will be seen as extremely bright flashes coming from the ground and/or visible in the sky near the aircraft. Treat these flashes as a warning you are about to be targeted and prepare to shield the eyes. Do not look in the direction of any suspicious light.
  • Alert the other crew member(s) using the phrase “Laser Attack” (initially assume you have been deliberately targeted and anticipate further illuminations) and determine whether they have suffered any laser-related effects. If the other front seat pilot has not been affected, he or she should immediately assume or maintain control of the aircraft.
  • Avoid rubbing eyes to reduce the potential for corneal abrasion.
  • Manoeuvre to block the laser, if possible and subject to ATC coordination. If on approach, consider a go-around (NB2).
  • Engage the autopilot.
  • After regaining vision, check flight instruments for proper flight status.
  • Turn flight deck lighting to maximum brightness to minimise any further illumination effects.
  • Immediately report the laser strike to ATC, including the direction and location of the laser source, beam colour and length of exposure (flash, pulsed and/or perceived intentional tracking). Do not look directly into the beam to locate the source. Consider declaring an emergency.
  • As soon as flight safety allows, check for dark/disturbed areas in vision, one eye at a time.
  • If incapacitated, contact ATC for priority/emergency handling. Consider using autoland.
  • If symptoms persist, obtain an eye examination as soon as practicable (NB4).
  • File an MOR. Reporting of laser strikes (and indeed interference from any high powered light) is mandatory under both the ANO and EU Regulations. In the UK, ATC will notify the Police. When possible, write down all details for the Police. Give serious consideration as to how the flight was affected (NB3).
  • If the normal procedures of a flight have been disrupted, especially if a hand over of control has been required, then do not refrain from declaring that there was “endangerment” of flight upon a laser strike. This will allow perpetrators to be prosecuted under Article 137, as opposed to solely Article 222. This will give the courts the option to impose significant punishments that will, hopefully, attract media attention and act as a deterrent to others.
  • If rostered for further flight sectors, consider whether you are physically and psychologically still fit to fly even if your self-assessment indicates no visual impairment. It is for individual flight crew to determine their fitness to fly in such circumstances, regardless of operator policy.
NB1: your company advice always remains the primary source of reference.
NB2: if warned in advance by ATC or other aircraft of laser activity, consider requesting a different runway, holding until it is resolved, or diverting.
NB3: it is important to include in any report details of how the flight was disrupted. Include details of any distraction and visual interference (however short in duration) experienced, and details of any checklists interrupted. If the flight profile was changed or energy management affected then this needs to be included. Any of the above may indicate the possible endangerment of the aircraft and should be reported as such.
NB4: as mentioned above, laser illumination can result in transient visual impairment, such as a retinal after-image remaining visible and/or camera flash-type blindness. Usually, these symptoms subside after a period of time, provided the individual does not look at the beam. As the power and availability of lasers increases it may be possible that a laser illumination event will result in longer term, or even permanent eye damage. If any visual symptoms persist after landing, then obtain an ophthalmologic examination. Do not use pain as an indicator of retinal damage; there are no pain-sensitive nerves in the back of the eye so pain will not necessarily be present. Advise the specialist that the evaluation should include ophthalmoscopy, visual acuity testing and central visual field testing with the Amsler Grid. After this evaluation, consult your employer’s Aeromedical Department, your AME and/or the CAA Medical Department before returning to duty. If the visual effects remain, do not drive or fly as crew. The CAA has produced an Aviation Laser Exposure Self-Assessment (ALESA) tool which pilots can access online, download and save it, with instructions, for their flight bags, or print a hard copy at the correct size in advance for use following a laser strike.

The CAA has published statictics on Reported Laser Incidents in the UK.

(Updated/Reviewed 02.02.16)