Do Lasers Pose a Credible Danger to Pilots

This FAA generated image shows the typical effect of a 5mW laser shining at a pilot from 3700 ft away.
This FAA generated image shows the typical effect of a 5mW laser shining at a pilot from 3700 ft away.

Something that comes and goes a bit in cycles seems to be claims of pilots who say they are being ‘targeted’ by ground based lasers.  The articles all read the same – that pilots can potentially be blinded by such events, but (usually unsaid) in whatever the case being reported on, the pilots experienced no actual problems as a result of the laser targeting.

I’ve been very unpersuaded about the nature or seriousness of the problem.  Most laser pointers are very weak to start with, and I’ve done training drills with 5 mW green and red laser pistols where the ‘targets’ (people) happily allowed the laser shot indicators to shine in their eyes from close range with no ill effects.  Although I’d absolutely not want to have a laser shone in my eyes at close range and thought these people crazy, that’s a very different situation from what a pilot experiences, with a laser that is shone at them anywhere from one tenth of a mile to more than a mile away.

That raises two interesting thoughts.

The first is obvious – just how much light intensity does a 5 mW laser pointer have at such distances?

The second is related to the first – if the laser beam is pencil thin, concentrated, and therefore more intense, how can a person manage to get the beam focused on the eyes of a pilot in a moving plane up in the sky, so far away?  That is very difficult for anything other than the briefest of chance flashes while the laser beam sweeps across the cockpit windows.

Alternatively, if the beam is broadening, while that makes it easier to ‘hit’ a pilot, it also means the beam’s intensity is diminishing and the fraction of a square inch of the pilot’s eye pupil gets only a small percentage of the total beam ‘blast’.

I’m only aware of one possibly real attack – by a Russian ship on a US Air Force officer close to Seattle, probably  using a military grade laser, not a civilian laser, but even in this case there is credible doubt as to the nature – if any – of the damage done to the officer – see this article.

Other than this incident, with its ambiguous outcome, I don’t believe there are any credible cases of pilots being harmed by lasers.  I also suspect that many of the so-called ‘laser attacks’ are nothing of the sort – especially when the pilots claim to have had white lasers shone at them (white lasers are uncommon, difficult to make and even more difficult to focus – as explained in this article, for example, whereas LED type white flashlights are becoming massively more powerful than ever before).

It seems that any sort of flash of bright light is now labeled a ‘laser attack’.

On the other hand, there’s a quite literally spectacular rebuttal to the claim that lasers are dangerous.  During the July 2013 protests against (now ex-)President Morsi in Egypt, hundreds (maybe even thousands) of demonstrators aimed laser pointers at government helicopters that were hovering overhead, but with no apparent effect whatsoever (great article and pictures here).

But let’s not have the real world interfere with people – and, alas, legislators – who believe that the solution to every problem is to pass an additional law about an activity that is already illegal.

In this case, the great state of New Jersey and its very self-centered Governor are racing to pass a new bill outlawing the sale of laser pointers with power greater than 1 mW (federal law allows for unrestricted retail sale of lasers having up to 5 mW of power).  Details here.

I find this particularly ridiculous for two reasons.  First, it exempts lasers designed to be fitted to firearms.  Why?  Aren’t they just as dangerous and open to abuse as any other type of laser?  If there truly is a problem with lasers, why leave such a large loophole?

Second, the law bans the sale of these lasers in NJ, but doesn’t appear to ban their ownership.  So a person could either mailorder a laser or buy one in an adjoining state.

Most of all though, it is another example of how 99.999% of the population, who lawfully own and use their laser pointers, are now being penalized by the actions of the 0.001% of the population who misuse laser pointers.

I’m not saying it should be lawful to shine lasers at anyone – pilots, car drivers, or anyone else, anywhere else.  Indeed, there are already several different laws that makes such acts illegal.  But I am saying that this new law is overkill for a problem that has yet to cause any accident or difficulty.

Here’s an even-handed discussion of the ‘problem’ of lasers with some good FAA generated simulations of the effect of lasers on pilots.  Note that the most extreme effects would require the laser to be impossibly close to the plane (ie 350 ft).  Even the moderate effects require the laser to be within 1200 ft of the plane, and that’s only possible during the last mile of a plane’s approach to an airport (or departure from an airport).

It is a shame the NJ Senate (who voted 36-1 to restrict laser sales) didn’t visit Wikipedia before voting on this new law.

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