Laser Danger in the Cockpit

On the evening of Dec. 29, 2004, a chartered Cessna Citation aircraft was making an approach into Teterboro Airport in New Jersey with six passengers. Flown by two experienced pilots, one of whom had made hundreds of landings at Teterboro, it was flying at about 3,000 feet when a green-colored laser beam hit the left side of the windshield three times. The brightness of the beam momentarily blinded both pilots, who immediately notified Teterboro authorities.They were able, however, to safely land the plane.
On the night of Dec. 31, the pilot joined New York and New Jersey police for a helicopter ride over the area where he’d seen the laser. He remembered it coming from a strip mall that he knew well from the air. As the helicopter circled the mall, the green laser blinked on again.
A helicopter crewmember shone a spotlight on the house that was the source of the laser, and police on the ground closed in. As they converged, David Banach, 38, a fiber-optic salesman,emerged from the house to ask what was going on. Told that the policewere investigating a laser beam aimed at the helicopter, Banach said his daughter had been shining the laser.
Banach went back inside the house and brought out a black box containing the silver, cigar-shaped laser. When a policeman turned it on, Banach warned him not to shine the laser in his eyes because he could be blinded.
Interviewed in his home, Banach continued to maintain that it was his daughter who had pointed the laser at the helicopter. He also denied any involvement in the Dec. 29 incident. But under questioning, he began to crack. Yes, he said, he had shone the laser at the helicopter, while stargazing with his daughter on their deck. He was taken to FBI headquarters in Newark, NJ, and read his rights. He also agreed to submit to a polygraph examination. In a written statement, he admitted the helicopter incident but continued to deny the airplane incident. After the polygraph and further questioning, he admitted that he had been the person wielding the laser in both cases.
Banach was charged with one count of lying to the FBI and one count of willfully interfering with commercial aviation under Title 18 of the United States Code, the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act—and far better known as the USA PATRIOT Act.
The lasers of 2004
The Banach case was unusual in that the culprit was caught and confessed, and the case is closed except for the final sentence. (Banach was released on $100,000 bond. His lawyers said he was not trying to harm anyone and was being made “a sacrificial lamb.”) But at the end of 2004 and the beginning of 2005, pilots reported an unusually high number of instances of laser lights shining into the cockpits of airplanes. Incidents were reported at Colorado Springs, Colo., Cleveland, Ohio, Washington, DC, Houston, Texas, and Medford, Ore., among many others.
In January, Norman Mineta, secretary of the Department of Transportation (DoT) announced during an address in Oklahoma City that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would issue guidance to pilots on dealing with the problem.
“There is no specific or credible intelligence that would indicate that these laser incidents are connected to terrorists,” Mineta said. “As far as we know, lasers are not the terrorists’ weapon of choice. Nor is there any evidence that these incidents are terrorists practicing for use of other weapons, as some have speculated.”
Since authorities do not suspect terrorist links to the laser lights appearing in cockpits, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have not become directly engaged in the issue, and pilots agree that there are more pressing concerns, said Doug Wells, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association (ATA), a trade organization of the principal US airlines.
“The threat really isn’t considered a top-tier threat. We feel that there’s other homeland security threats that authorities should focus on,” Wells told HSToday.
Still, Mineta stressed that his department was concerned about a leap in the number of “unauthorized laser illumination events” since Dec. 23, 2004. While more than 400 such incidents had been reported since 1990, the FAA had received reports of 31 of them in less than one month at the time of Mineta’s speech.
“Recent research conducted by the FAA righthere in Oklahoma City has found that some lasers, when shined into aplane’s cockpit, could temporarily disorient or disable a pilot during critical stages of flight, such as landing or take off. Even worse, ina few cases, these lasers can cause permanent eye damage for those who look directly into the beam,” Mineta said. “We are treating lasers in the cockpit as a serious aviation safety matter.”
The matter is serious enough that members of Congress sought specifics on how lasers might be tied to terrorism.
Congressional considerations
On Jan. 26, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) published a report, Lasers Aimed at Aircraft Cockpits: Background and Possible Options to Address the Threat to Aviation Safety and Security ( pdf), examining the options available to the House and Senate for dealing with the threat.
“While none of these incidents has been linked to terrorism, security officials have expressed concern that terrorists may seek to acquire and use higher-powered lasers to, among other things, incapacitate pilots. There is also growing concern among aviation safety experts that the ubiquity and low cost of handheld laser devices could increase the number of incidents where pilots are distracted or temporarily incapacitated during critical phases of flight,” wrote Bart Elias, a specialist in aviation safety, security,and technology in the CRS Resources, Science, and Industry Division.
Contrary to DoT’s conclusions, the FBI and DHS have issued reports identifying lasers as a potential terrorist weapon. Although lasers have not been proven effective, overseas terrorists groups have expressed interest in exploring the option of using them, particularly since they are inexpensive and easy to conceal, the CRS report said.
Pilots can become incapacitated or disoriented by laser lights over a significant distance, the CRS report found, and the National Transportation Safety Board has reported at least two incidents in which pilots “sustained eye injuries and were incapacitated during critical phases of flight.”
The report found that, while no aviation accidents have been attributed to laser lights to date, glare and flashblinding are two significant threats to pilot safety and could lead to a crash or threat to passenger safety. And while an airplane crash could possibly result from a laser illumination incident,authorities agree that handheld laser pointers purchased from office supply stores pose little threat to aviation safety.
“No one thinks that a laser pointer used for a PowerPoint presentation is going to bring down an airliner,” ATA’s Wells noted.
The CRS report cited a concern that lasers such as the Chinese-manufactured ZM-87 laser blinder or high-powered industrial lasers could pose a more significant threat. The report quoted a previous FAA report that warned a “laser attack could be quickly deployed and withdrawn, leaving no obvious collateral damage or projectile residue, and would be difficult to detect and defend against. The possible visual impairment, startle, distraction, and the loss of spatial orientation created by such an attack could make landing an aircraft difficult at best.”
The dangers
Richard Hughes, a physicist and member of the Laser Institute of America, sits on a number of committees that set standards for lasers. Hughes, who holds 23 laser patents, told HSToday that the threat posed by laser pointer beams has increased with the recent drop in prices for green lasers, which have joined red lasers in being affordable to most consumers.
A green laser pointer is “about $65, plus shipping,” Hughes said. “These produce green light, and they are much more sophisticated than the red laser pointers.”
A red laser pointer has a simple red diode laser, Hughes said, with a lens that focuses it into a beam. Green pointers, however, use a powerful infrared diode laser, the energy from which enters a neodymium YAG crystal, which produces an infrared laserbeam. A small crystal placed in front of that doubles the frequency of the beam, producing the green laser. Not only is the laser much more powerful than its red sibling, but it can travel a greater distance, as well.
“I would say if there is no rain or dust in the air to diminish the power as it travels along, it could probably do some degree of flash blindness or deep glare in a cockpit as much as a mile away, 5,000 feet,” Hughes said. “That would be an outside limit, I would think, but I don’t have any data to support that.”
Lasers can cause three phenomena that could impair the pilot and crew of an aircraft, Hughes noted. The first is permanent eye damage, which is unlikely in the case of a laser pointer hit. However, two other conditions, flash blindness and glare, could pose a significant threat to a pilot or even a bus driver.
“The concern is with people being exposed as they are carrying out a critical task that involves the safety of a number of people,” Hughes said.
Pilots could be temporarily incapacitated by flash blindness, which could pose a safety threat during a critical moment. Glare can make flying completely unsafe for everyone in the cockpit.
“When you have extreme glare, like from a laser in the cockpit of an airplane or whatever, you cannot see your instruments, you cannot see the horizon,” Hughes said.
What pilots should do
The FAA has issued guidance that explains what pilots should do when they encounter any laser incident in the cockpit.
“Basically, what we want pilots to do is immediately report any laser events to our air traffic controllers,” FAA spokesman Les Dorr told HSToday. “The air traffic controllers forward those reports, and we notify law enforcement, any transportation security or the FBI, with the information that may help them identify where it was coming from and possibly identify who was doing it.”
Dorr added that air traffic controllers should also take the initiative to report any laser events they become aware of and warn pilots of them, as well.
FAA Advisory Circular 70-2, issued Jan. 11, instructs air traffic controllers to file a report through the Domestic Events Network, designed to share real-time security information among air traffic operations, TSA and law enforcement. A report should include the date and time of the incident; the operator, flight number and type of aircraft; the location of the incident in longitude and latitude; a brief description of the event; and any other relevant information.
“What the circular did was to establish requirements— and I use the term requirements loosely because advisory circulars by their nature are not mandatory—but it basically describesa system for reporting the incidents if they should experience them,” Dorr said.
The Domestic Events Network provides a “phone bridge that is constantly monitored by safety, security and law enforcement personnel,” Mineta explained in his January speech. “Once these laser incidents are posted on the network, our air traffic controllers will work with police to identify the source of the lasers.The goal is to get police quickly to the scene of the crime. If the person is apprehended, we will do everything we can to make sure the case is aggressively prosecuted.”
The FAA is also establishing a system that enables air traffic controllers to broadcast information about laser incidents to pilots, so that everyone knows about them as quickly as possible, Mineta said. The broadcasts would begin as soon as a report is filed and repeat every five minutes for at least 20 minutes.
“These reports will be shared with the commercial and general aviation communities, so that their members will have the same information we do,” Mineta said.
Mineta also lamented that “no single device” was available for installation on aircraft or issuance to pilots and crew that could “provide a level of protection equal to the safety threat posed by these lasers.”
Protective options
Not everyone agrees with Mineta’s assessment.
“The wavelength of the green laser is well known—it is referred to as 532 nanometers—that’s a unit of length, the wavelength,” Hughes said. “Because we know that and because that type of laser has been used in research laboratories and facilities all over the world, there is laser safety eyewear that [pilots] could wear toprotect them from that.”
Hughes did not believe that such protective eyewear would otherwise inhibit the vision of the cockpit crew.
“It would make things look a little on the reddish side, but they could still read their instruments,” he said. “It would be like a pair of sunglasses that rejects or blocks the laser wavelength primarily and lets the other colors through.”
Indeed, protective eyewear was one of several solutions suggested by the CRS report of recommendations to Congress on how to deal with the laser problem.
“Because lasers are available in a variety of colors, it may be difficult to find a single solution that can provide eye protection against all laser threats without significantly impeding vision, including the ability to view cockpit displays and see certain aviation-specific lighting colors, such as red obstruction lights,” the CRS report said.
Other options, such as glare shields, could provide a better solution, the report offered, but they could impede night vision. Meanwhile, the Defense Department has been researching visors that would activate only when a laser comes in contract with the cockpit’s windshield.
“For the moment, the DOT has indicated that, given the relatively small number of laser light incidents, there is no specific need to require protective eye equipment for pilots at this time,” the report added.
Congress could take several other steps to decrease the threat of a laser pointer attack on an airliner, according to the CRS analysis. First, Congress might explore restricting sales of certain lasers.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the sale of lasers and recommends the use of certain classes of laser for specific purposes. Lasers are classified in five categories, from least to most powerful: Class I, Class II, Class IIIa, Class IIIb and Class IV. Class IIIa lasers are harmful if viewed directly, but generally cannot cause harm from long distances. Class IV lasers can burn or permanently blind their victims.
“While not widely available, these powerful lasers could potentially be used as a terrorist weapon to attempt to incapacitate a flight crew,” the CRS report said.
The report noted that the United Kingdom had severely restricted the sales of lasers in Class IIIa and above in response to laser cockpit incidents.
Second, Congress could encourage enforcement of laser-free zones around airports. Currently, the law bans lasers that could disrupt aircrew vision from being activated within 2 milesof airport runways. The ease of concealing a laser has made enforcement of this law troublesome.
Third, Congress could stiffen criminal penalties for the use of lasers directed at airliners, the report said. Provisions under the USA PATRIOT Act prohibit acts of violence against mass transportation systems, but lawmakers could toughen specific penalties for lasers.
Finally, according to CRS, the federal government could put labels on lasers to warn the public of the dangers they pose to air traffic and the penalties incurred by those who use them to disrupt aircrew operations. HST
Editor’s Note
Anyone who has seen a laser in action, especially on a clear dark night, has to be impressed. Whether it’s the giant experimental lasers operated by the US Air Force at the Phillips Laboratory in New Mexico — which can literally reach the moon — or a simple handheld pointer laser, seeing that beam shine endlessly into the void can be a breathtaking experience. It’s an experience more and more Americans are sharing as lasers come down in price and rise in availability. Put simply, they’re fun. And like most toys, they tend to be used carelessly and thoughtlessly.
While the spate of laser incidents in late 2004 and early 2005 have largely been ruled out as terrorist incidents—something authorities and the public couldn’t be certain of at the time—they nonetheless represent a danger to all aviation, and it’s clear that further action must be taken.
The protective measures for pilots and aircraft will no doubt continue to be debated on their technical merits. But the simplest and easiest measures can be taken at the point of sale—and production. Warnings against illegal use should accompany all laser pointers sold. Purchasers have to be made aware of the penalties for illegal use. Companies that fail to provide such warnings should be made liable for the improper use of their products. And users must know that justice will be swift and severe. The case of David Banach provides one such warning.
Britain’s restriction on certain classes of lasers is another possible option. United States authorities and legislators should consider the British example of restricting the sale of Class IIIa lasers and above.
The possible use of pointing lasers as weapons of terror is now on the table. Authorities and pilots can’t restrict or restrain their improper use at all times. Only if owners understand that with ownership comes responsibility and possible consequences will the skies be largely free of the laser threat.
— David Silverberg, Editor

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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