Laser illumination hazards on pilots

A recent spate of incidents in the UK involving lasers directed at landing aircraft is evidence that they continue to be a threat to aviation. In August several aircraft operating into Gatwick, Liverpool and East Midlands were illuminated with a strong laser by persons on the ground, whilst flying visual approaches. Although fortunately no direct eye contact with the beam was made, the potential for a temporary loss of vision was very real and the results could have been much worse.

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 have for many years aggressively urged the authorities to address the laser problem, but it has proven a difficult problem to thwart. To date, in the US where the use of high-intensity laser pointers is banned (as it is in Australia where perpetrators can be jailed for up to 14 years) only one perpetrator of a laser incident has been federally prosecuted and convicted of a federal crime, which was done under the US Patriot Act of 2001. Despite continuing law enforcement efforts to deter and apprehend miscreants, over 200 laser incidents had been reported in the US for the first five months of 2007.

On January 11, 2005, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued Advisory Circular (AC) No. 70-2, ‘Reporting of Laser Illumination of Aircraft in response to documented incidents of unauthorized illumination of aircraft by lasers’. That AC required all pilots to immediately report any laser sightings to air traffic controllers. It then required 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 would then work with the police to identify the source of the lasers to ensure a rapid police response to the scene.

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

(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 can be successfully managed. 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.

Advice to Pilots Exposed to Laser Attack 2012

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.

Do not rub the eyes.

Alert the other crew member(s) to 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.

Manoeuvre to block the laser, if possible and subject to ATC . If on approach, consider a go-around.

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 incident to ATC, including the direction and location of the laser source, beam colour and length of exposure (flash, pulsed and/or intentional tracking). Do not look directly into the beam to locate the source.

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 autoland.

If symptoms persist, obtain an eye examination as soon as practicable. SEE NOTE BELOW

File an MOR. In the UK, ATC will notify the Police. When possible, write down all details for the Police.

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 If warned in advance by ATC or other aircraft of laser activity, consider requesting a different runway, holding until it is resolved, or diverting.

NB2 Your company advice always remains the primary source of reference.

Laser illumination can result in minor and 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. If any visual symptoms persist after landing, then obtain an ophthalmologic examination. 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 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 and a Safety Notice. Pilots could access the ALESA tool online following a laser attack, download and save it at the correct size in advance, or print in advance a hard copy at the correct size, with instructions, for their flight bags.