The number of incidents involving laser illumination or a laser attack on airplanes is increasing, posing a growing threat to air transportation safety. Laser illumination is when a laser pointer is pointed purposely at an aircraft, at or near airports and flight routes. Said to be an extremely frightening experience for surviving pilots.
Even at low altitudes, laser light can cause sudden blindness, temporary loss of situational awareness, confusing disruption to the flight crew, and serious damage to eyes.
Since 2004, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has reported tens of thousands of laser incidents involving commercial and military airplanes; with nearly 8,000 occurring in 2015 alone. Thankfully, the FAA is collaborating with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to impose both civil and criminal penalties against those who commit this federal crime.
Though these measures are important, they are nonetheless reactive measures. So, what can the aviation industry do to combat this dangerous safety risk? In addition to a thorough knowledge of recommended defensive procedures, the solution to reducing this hazard is understanding the severity of the threat, the effects on and damage to eyesight, and available protective technologies such as laser safety glasses for pilots.
Starkness of the peril
The threat and number of laser attack incidents has increased steadily along with the affordability of laser pointers.
Illumination of an aircraft begins abruptly, filling the flight deck with glaring bright light that makes it nearly impossible to focus on flight instruments and distorts as well as sometimes eliminates visual references to the runway and the ground. Images and video do little justice to the actual experience, and cannot convey the psychological effects suffered by the crew.
George Palikaras, a physicist and CEO of Metamaterial Technologies, Inc. said, “We have had discussions with pilots who were in tears. The memory of pain, blindness, inability to see even cockpit instruments carried such a psychological impact from this that they were in tears telling the story.”
According to the FAA, half of the incidents occur at or below 5,000 feet. Additionally, most attacks occur at night, presumable due to greater affect from the laser. In the United States, the majority of attacks happen in the western Pacific region, mostly in the Los Angeles and San Jose areas.
Laser attacks are also being reported around the world. In March 2008, several people coordinated an attack on landing airplanes with the use of lasers lights and cell phones. Some planes landed safely while others were forced to land at other airports.
It’s the eye of the pilot, it’s the thrill of the flight
It’s no secret that eyesight is one of a pilot’s most valuable physiological possessions.
Light enters the eye through the cornea and then through the pupil (circular opening in the iris). The light is then congregated by the lens to a nodal point behind the lens and becomes inverted. Next, the light advances through the vitreous humor and back to focus on the retina. The retina then changes the light impulses into electrical signals that are sent to the optic nerve and back to the occipital lobe of the brain. The brain interprets these electrical signals as visual images.
The effects of and damage to the eye from laser light depends on both the wavelength and the part of the eye it hits. The most dangerous hazard is when the beam enters directly into the eye, which is the organ that is most sensitive to light. The energy from a laser beam increases as the spot decreases; meaning that this energy can be intensified 100,000 times by the focusing action of the eye. Moreover, even a low power laser (40 mW) can cause a burn to the retina that is strong enough to burn through paper instantly.
If the cornea is damaged, the person will experience a gritty feeling that can be painful but typically heals quickly. Damage to deeper layers of the cornea can be permanent. Damage to the lens can cause blurred vision and make it difficult to focus on objects. The retina provides the most detailed vision as well as color perception; damage to this area can cause a total loss of vision.
Technology for pilots to outsmart the enemy
Laser strike eyewear is being successfully used by pilots worldwide to combat sudden laser illumination. Available in a variety of attractive styles and frames, this particular type of safety eyewear typically comes in three different polycarbonate lens types. The following eyewear is lightweight and designed to fit comfortably under helmets and headsets, or fit over prescription glasses.
- Because green laser lights are used in 90% of attacks, the LS-PSPG lens is the commonly used. With 46.9% VLT (variable light transmission), it protects valuable eyesight from green beam reduction.
- The next level of protective lenses is the LS-PSPBG with 43.0% VLT, providing protection from both green and blue reduction.
- The third filter lens is the LS-PSPBR, containing 23.3% VLT and offering protection from green, blue, and red reduction.
Laser illumination on aircraft is an extremely dangerous event. Because the number of incidents continues to rise at an alarming rate, be they coordinated or accidental attacks (due to ignorance of the risks), it is imperative that the aviation industry, specifically pilots, are aware of this information. And while it is necessary to have a complete understanding of recommended defensive procedures, it is equally important to understand just how severe this threat is to flight crew and passengers, along with potential health risks posed to eyesight, and the importance of laser safety glasses for pilots.
Phillips Safety Products has been protecting eyes for over 110 years. Contact us today to learn more about the products that will assist you in reducing the hazards of a laser strike.