Picture this: You’re a commercial airline pilot, about to finish up that five hour flight from Atlanta to Seattle, on approach to the runway. It’s late at night, you’re tired, and you just want to get home and watch the newest episode of Glee…then, out of nowhere, a green laser beam hits you in the eye, temporarily blinding you and making you shout obscenities to your co-pilot.
This is not only something that happens for real, but it can be real dangerous too.
This problem has been somewhat vexing for the aviation industry since about the early 1990’s when lasers became widely available to the public. For several years, the FAA only reported several incidents a year, mainly due to outdoor displays. In 1995, a number of these displays in Las Vegas caused problems with incoming aircraft, and the displays were quickly shut down.
In recent years, however, it seems like a bunch of idiots have gone out and bought handheld laser pointers and started shining them at airplanes. Whether they are just negligent (‘hey, I wonder if I could see the laser all the way up on the plane!’) or just want to cause harm is up for debate. The problem became so bad that Congress nearly passed several laws and set up a task force to combat these attacks. On February 22nd, 2009, a dozen planes were targeted while landing at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport – and they were some of the 143 attacks that took place in the span of just two months.
The problem is that these lasers can be extremely harmful to the retina when shone directly in someone’s eye; after all, they are extremely intense beams of radiation. We see light radiation every day, but not at this intensity. As a result, temporary flashes can cause impaired vision, disorientation, and even temporary blindness depending on the strength of the beam – all things that I am sure nobody would want their pilot to be experiencing. It is not hard to see why this has become a major concern.
Today, special equipment has been installed on many airliners to pinpoint the source of these lasers. Intentional laser attacks carry huge fines and even jail time; in fact, one New Jersey man was even prosecuted under the USA PATRIOT Act because the government saw it as a form of terrorism. So please…keep your laser pointers aimed at your pets and friends at all times!