The Laser Threat

Authorities struggle to shut off the beams aimed into cockpits.

Air Force Second Lieutenant Paul LaTour is illuminated by a green laser during a landing in a Boeing 737 flight simulator at the FAA center in Oklahoma City. The Air Force and FAA worked to determine what level of laser exposure is safe for pilots. (AFRL / HE /John Schutte)
Air & Space Magazine

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To tempt the laser user on the ground to try another attack, we were going to present ourselves, a lower and slower moving target. The Eurocopter was equipped with technology for imaging and determining street location, and police cars were nearby to move in if the attacker tried again. “We’ve got about a 75 percent arrest rate of people who target us,” Zager told me earlier in the day.

In truth, I was ambivalent about being the lure: eager to experience firsthand the subject of the story, but nervous about the potential danger. I need not have worried. There was no further laser action around LAX that night. Still, both MacNair and Dailey say they regularly experience laser attacks when flying, and they keep protective eyewear nearby.

The FAA’s Brown attributes some of the huge increase in laser attack statistics to the fact that it’s now easier for pilots to file a report. And according to Samuel Goldwasser, a retired professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the online guide Sam’s Laser FAQ, “the cost of green laser pointers has dropped to the point where almost any nutcase can buy one.” The pointers sell on the Internet for as little as $9. At the same time, “So far, there doesn’t seem to be any increase in regulation [of sales] or enforcement, which means the problem is only going to get worse.”

In his job as chief pilot for the Glendale-Burbank Police joint air support unit, Sergeant Steve Robertson has repeatedly been hit with lasers. Once in the 1990s his eyes were temporarily damaged to the point that he missed work for a week. He says that in his experience, the FBI’s profile of the typical culprit—males in their teens or in their 30s—is spot on. “They think it is a real live video game,” says Robertson.

Zager describes three general types of laser attackers: “There are...boneheads who are shining them in the sky and may inadvertently strike an aircraft; those who are targeting aircraft with the purpose of trying to disorient the flight crews; [and] criminals who are possibly targeting police and fire and public safety because they don’t like the government.”

One example of the latter: Glenn Stephen Hansen, a software engineer from St. Cloud, Florida. According to Hansen’s federal plea agreement, he repeatedly shined lasers at airplanes departing Orlando International Airport because he thought officials were ignoring his complaints about airport noise. In one attack, in March 2012, Jerry Egel, a pilot with AirTran (now part of Southwest), was taking off when he was “struck in the face by a bright green laser” at 400 feet. Egel told authorities the laser tracked the plane for nearly a minute, requiring him to take evasive maneuvers. Hansen pleaded guilty to attacking Egel’s airliner and was sentenced to six months in prison.

The problem is not confined to the United States. “It’s a worldwide phenomenon,” says Patrick Murphy, a laser expert whose safety website is considered the authoritative voice on the issue. The website tracks what governments around the globe are doing, linking to statutes in Australia, Canada, and the Philippines that make directing laser beams at airplanes a crime.

The Laser Institute of America publishes articles in its newsletter and issues press releases about the hazards of illuminating aircraft with lasers, but education director Gus Anibarro admits that the people who really need this information are unlikely to see it. Probably no more than five percent of the attackers are intentionally trying to do harm, Anibarro estimates, and most “don’t know the law, but there is no coordinated effort to educate this ignorant majority.”

At the FAA, “we’ve tried to be as proactive as possible, but we don’t have the money to do a marketing campaign,” says Laura Brown. The agency’s efforts consist of participating in an informal, internal task force and in the FBI’s working group, and running the laser report website.

Alan Roy, Safety Committee Chair­man for the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, says not enough attention is being paid to prevention. He suggests that “those who are caught pointing lasers at aircraft help educate the public as a requirement of their sentencing.”

Goldwasser agrees that authorities must reach out to those tempted to misuse lasers. While laser pointers aren’t going away, “you can make information available the same way as with other health issues,” he says. “You have to make sure this is covered as early as elementary school. You tell them, ‘Don’t shoot bright lights into the sky and at planes.’ ”

Last summer, after a season of attacks on Coast Guard aircraft in Los Angeles, in Atlantic coast communities, and in Puerto Rico, some officers in beach resorts in Georgia, South Carolina, and Maryland went visiting shops that sell lasers as novelty items. “We asked them not to sell the lasers and they complied,” says Lieutenant Commander Shana Donaldson of the Coast Guard’s aviation safety division and a member of a laser systems safety working group that includes the FAA, the Department of Defense, and the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates lasers and radiation-emitting devices.

About Christine Negroni

Christine Negroni is a freelance aviation and travel writer whose work appears in The New York Times, on ABC News and in other publications. She writes the popular blog, Flying Lessons. Her book latest book,The Crash Detectives, published by Penguin, is about Malaysia 370 and other aviation mysteries.

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