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Lasers – consultation, advice and action

by Steve Landells Flight Safety Specialist

This week marks National Eye Health Week and we thought this would be a good opportunity to remind you of what to do to best protect your vision should you fall victim to a laser attack.

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 and last year saw 1,258 reports from UK pilots just in UK airspace.

BALPA has campaigned hard on this issue and we were making really good headway before the general election, with a specific laser offence included in the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill. However, following the election and much to our dismay, this was dropped.

We are now bolstered to see that the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has launched a ‘call for evidence’ and is asking for any information, data, experiences and opinions it could use to develop new policy on this safety threat. BALPA pilots can take part in the survey by following the instructions in our recent member email, or by following the above link. Our hope is that this will kick start further discussion and lead to finally getting some tougher police powers in place to tackle the laser menace.

What is the risk from a laser attack?

As a pilot, the major concerns surrounding a laser illumination are those of startle and distraction but it is also very likely that an event may result in temporary vision interference in the form of:

(1) Flash blindness (a visual interference that persists after the source of illumination has been removed)

(2) After-image (a transient image left in the visual field after exposure to a bright light)

(3) 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 – distraction, disruption, disorientation, and 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 indicates that the hazard has, up until now, been successfully managed. With the increase in sales of lasers, and the rapid increase in power, managing the hazard will undoubtedly become more of a challenge unless something is done about it. Technologies are available to mitigate the effects of lasers, but are cumbersome, do not provide full-spectrum protection, and are unlikely to be installed on airline flight decks in the foreseeable future. Systems that detect where a laser is being fired from are also being developed but, again, these are some way off and won’t stop the strike in the first place.

Recommendations to flight crew experiencing a laser event

If a laser beam illuminates a flight crewmember in flight, BALPA recommends the crew follow these procedures:

  • The illuminated crewmember should immediately alert the other crew member(s) to determine whether they have also suffered any laser-related effects
  • Immediately report the laser incident to ATC, including the direction and location of the laser source, beam colour, steady beam or pulsed and length of exposure (flash or intentional tracking)
  • If the other crew member(s) has not been illuminated, he or she should immediately assume or maintain control of the aircraft
  • Turn cockpit lighting up to maximum brightness to minimize any further cockpit illumination effects
  • Engage the autopilot
  • Contact ATC for priority handling and, if required, declare a medical emergency
  • After regaining vision, check cockpit instruments for proper flight status
  • Try to shield the eyes from the light source with a hand or a hand-held object to avoid, if possible, looking directly into the laser beam
  • Resist the urge to rub the eye(s) after a laser illumination as this can cause corneal abrasion.
  • As soon as possible after landing, get an eye examination at the nearest hospital to determine if you have suffered any eye damage

And finally, report, report, report! We need to demonstrate how widespread this issue is and would encourage all members to report a laser event, even if you manage to avoid your eyes being directly hit.