The United States military is developing a broad range of laser weapons, as this article in Popular Mechanics explains.
Unfortunately, such lasers pose risks not only to enemy forces, but to the military personnel using them. They are potentially exposed to lasers when learning how to operate the weapons and training with them.
Also, many ordinary people have small but powerful lasers they sometimes play around with, and these pose risks, especially to pilots.
Lasers Endanger Both Military and Civilian Pilots and Aircraft
A lot of people enjoy playing around laser pointers. Some of them are just ignorant, and don’t understand the danger involved. Some think it’s fun to point at airplanes and helicopters. Either they don’t realize, or don’t care, the laser beam does not stop high in the atmosphere as it seems to. It keeps on going, high enough to reach the cockpits of aircraft.
Recently, a laser beam blinded the eyes of Air Force pilots landing a C-17 at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Fortunately, the plane reached the ground safely. In March 2016 a laser beam distracted and disoriented flight crew members of a F-15E Strike Eagle as it descended toward RAF Lakenheath in England.
In the United States, a 2012 law makes shining a laser at an airplane or helicopter a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison. Various state laws also prohibit this. And the government has convicted and jailed people for it, but hasn’t stopped them.
The problem is growing around the world, not only in the United States and Europe, causing governments in all areas to criminalize pointing lasers at aircraft. New South Wales Australia completely banned the lasers.
Because the laser beam points back to its source on the ground as well as in the air, they are easy for police in helicopters to locate. So far, the perpetrators are laser hobbyists ignorant of the dangers of pointing a beam at an airplane. However, many of them are not caught. Are terrorists behind any of the laser strikes? Nobody knows for certain, so nobody can rule out the possibility.
People fire off lasers at night. It’s also nighttime for airplane pilots, so the cockpit is dark except for the lights of the instrument panel. Therefore, their pupils are open, up to 4 millimeters wide, increasing their vulnerability to sudden glares and flashes. It’s the same effect as what your eyes feel when they’ve been in the dark for a long time, but a dazzling bright light suddenly glares into them. That ruins their night vision.
Even if the beam does not hit the cockpit, the pilot sees it in flashes, and so it distracts the pilot. Worse, that must arouse their suspicions someone hostile is targeting them.
Although laser light beams are extremely coherent and focused, unlike ordinary light, they do spread out as it travels. Therefore, a point that is creates just a narrow dot at a close distance is inches wide when it reaches the cockpit. When it hits the windscreen, or bubble of a helicopter, imperfections in that material spread the light out further, up to a meter, causing such a glare the pilot cannot avoid it. Such flashes might last only a thousandth of a second. When the light’s strong enough, the laser beam causes flashblindness and afterimages.
This pamphlet from the Federal Aviation Authority goes into more detail about the danger.
The FAA reports 7,500 laser strikes on aircraft occurred in 2015. They estimate there’ll be 12,000 in 2016.
This article in the British Journal of Ophthalmology points out that the small, red pointers of 1 or less milliwatts of the past did not cause a significant threat to eyes unless someone stared into them for a long time. These are properly categorized as Class 2. However, stores and websites around the world now sell much stronger laser devices, both red and green, with power up to 6000 Mw, usually treated as Class 3B or Class 4, too dangerous to use without proper safeguards.
The Most Dangerous Times
The most dangerous parts of any airplane flight are takeoff and landing. Most airplane crashes happen then.
And that’s when lasers pose the most risk to the pilots and aircraft because that’s when pilots are using their eyes to get off or on the landing strip. Laser beam flashes are also a particular concern during emergency maneuvers. Planes are most at risk while under 10,000 feet.
Military and Civilian Pilots Can Protect Themselves
You can buy and wear Laser Strike eyewear. They come in lightweight designs you can wear underneath headsets and helmets. The fitover model suits those wearing prescription lenses. Made of polycarbonate, the lenses absorb the energy of laser beams, drastically reducing their intensity, but, because designed for aviation use, will not distort your view of your instrument panel.
They come in 3 models:
* Block green laser radiation (532 nanometers). Visible Light Transmittance 46.9%
* Block green and blue laser light. Visible Light Transmittance 43%
* Block green, blue and red light. Visible Light Transmittance 23.3%
The most common laser strikes (91%) are of green light. That’s because the human eye perceives green as the brightest form of laser light, and that also makes it the most dangerous.
VLT measures how much visible light goes through the lenses. Therefore the lower the percentage of VLT, the more light the lenses block.
Pilots around the world wear these glasses to protect themselves, especially during takeoff and landing when they are below 10,000 feet. In many countries wearing them at those periods is standard operating procedure.
Additional Safety Measures
The FAA marks fixed laser facilities that always use lasers, such as astronomical observatories, on aeronautical charts. Temporary laser users such as producers of outdoor laser light shows show up during pre-flight information as a NOTAM, or Notice to Airmen.
The Military is Developing Laser Weapons
That means they must take the same measures to protect their personnel that industries and laboratories using dangerous Class 3B and Class 4 lasers in civilian life must employ.
At Phillips Safety Products we make laser safety strike glasses for both commercial and military pilots. Contact us today to learn how you can protect your eyes from either thrill seekers or terrorists.