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Laser Incidents With Aircraft On the Rise 546

Posted by Soulskill
from the plays-better-with-cats dept.
EqualSlash writes "High-power laser pointers available for cheap are increasingly finding abuse as the ultimate long-distance weapons of pranksters and vandals. The Federal Aviation Administration says laser events aimed on planes have nearly doubled in the last year, leaping from 1,527 in 2009 to 2,836 in 2010. The highest number of incidents was reported at Los Angeles International Airport, which recorded 102 in 2010. Lasers pointed at cockpits can temporarily blind pilots, forcing them to give up control of an aircraft to their co-pilot or abort a take-off/landing. In March of 2008, unidentified individuals wielding four green laser pointers launched a coordinated attack on six incoming planes at Sydney Airport, which resulted in a ban on all laser pointers in the state of New South Wales."
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Laser Incidents With Aircraft On the Rise

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  • by Nikker (749551) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @09:05PM (#34969024)
    How do you manage getting a beam of light inside a cockpit that opens facing upward? Aside from banking sharply it doesn't make any sense.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 22, 2011 @09:11PM (#34969072)

      The pilots must be able to see the ground for landing and must be able to look down for traffic avoidance--if they can see the ground, someone on the ground can blast them in the eye with a laser. You are right though--someone directly below would have a hard time shining the laser into most cockpits and must be some horizontal distance away.

      • by Sam36 (1065410) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @10:33PM (#34969642)
        No it is really pretty easy. Just tape the laser pointer to a pair of binoculars. With a little bit of playing around with the aiming, you will be able to look into the binoculars and see the laser hitting objects way far away very easily. Holding the binoculars while placing your arms on a table will give you very good stability. Works really great!
        • by Illogical Spock (1058270) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @10:57PM (#34969790)

          You happen to live in Sydney?

        • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 22, 2011 @11:29PM (#34969992)

          You want to just drive yourself over or do we have to come pick you up?
          -FBI

        • by JWSmythe (446288) <jwsmytheNO@SPAMjwsmythe.com> on Sunday January 23, 2011 @03:10AM (#34971100) Homepage Journal

              I'd have to think, for stability a laser emitter and binoculars or low range telescope on a rifle stock would be better. photographers [google.com] using telescopic lenses have been doing this for a long time, especially for nature shooting, where a tripod isn't practical.

              For most folks who just picked up a cheap laser emitter, it doesn't exactly seem like they'd want to spend the money for binoculars nor a rifle stock. Unless of course they already have a binocular or telescope, and a BB rifle.

              I wonder how many of these incidents aren't malicious. There are plenty of laser devices for stage and outdoor performances too. In 2008, the FAA statistics say there were about 31.8 million flights. I assume the number of flights for 2010 is similar or greater than the 2008 number. If so, this involved 0.009% of the flights.

              Have you ever been to a shooting range, where someone was using a laser sight? It can be very scary. Most people can't point a gun steady enough to keep the point on the paper. That's only at a range of a few feet. Years back, I had a laser pointer, and lived in a 2nd floor apartment. At night when there was no traffic, I'd point it at street signs and tail lights of parked cars (they both reflect very well). Ok, I was young, and bored. I have steady hands, and can shoot firearms more accurately than most people. I could put the point on them very accurately at say 100 feet. At any significant distance (say 200'+), the beam divergence was pretty significant, so it had to hit something reflective to see it at all. As the range increased beyond that, the divergence would become greater (obviously), and even with a point the size of a truck, it was hard to put on target.

              At my local airport (a fairly busy international airport), the traffic pattern is at 1,500 feet (about 1,000 feet higher than any local structures). The FAA recommendation for the traffic pattern is 1,000 feet AGL, unless local conditions warrant otherwise (mountains, buildings, or noise abatement rules). So if it's hard to put a laser pointer dot accurately on something as big as a parked truck at around 200 feet or so, it would be damned near impossible to stay on a target at 1000+ feet traveling at 160mph.

              The other option would be that it's common to spot commercial entertainment lasers, from say outdoor concerts, theme parks, etc. They are not permitted to point any laser towards the eyes of the audience. Their only choice is to point them up. With that being true, a 0.009% chance of a pilot seeing a laser likely coincides with the chance of an aircraft intersecting the beam while in the pattern or on approach. Any higher than that, I'd say a pilot probably wouldn't even notice the dim light, or at best it would look like any other lights on the ground.

              I've only ever heard of two instances where someone was caught shining lasers at aircraft. One was a guy who had purchased a high power laser, and was caught when he was pointing it at a police helicopter (stable target, low altitude, ability to follow it to the offender). The other was the incident cited in the article, which would not be included in the FAA's statistics. With such little evidence of who the offenders are, it leaves plenty of opportunity for the evidence of pilots seeing lasers to be circumstantial at best in saying that the offenders were actually intentionally committing the acts.

              Sorry for rambling on there. :)

    • by dave562 (969951) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @09:30PM (#34969222) Journal

      I can only speak to the approach into LAX, because that is the only major international airport that I have seen on a regular basis (unless you count PDX, but that is more regional). There are plenty of 4-5 story parking garages along the 405 as the planes are nearly down on final approach. A person could probably get another 5 feet of elevation for standing on top of a vehicle, maybe 6-7 feet if you find a big lifted monster truck or cargo van. All in total that is about 55 feet of elevation.

      The flight paths on those planes is completely predictable. It would be fairly easy to get into the cockpit of some of those planes. A person would probably need a aim a few miles out. Once they were near the garage, the angle would be too extreme given the height of the cockpit.

      How much energy would be needed to create a distracting level of laser light into the cockpit of a jumbo jet that is 5-10 miles away?

      • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @10:11PM (#34969492) Journal
        Depends on the optics and the weather, I would suspect.

        On a clear day, with excellent optics, probably surprisingly little(In Lunar laser rangefinding experiments, the laser spreads from being a near-point-source to a mere 4 mile diameter spot across ~240,000 miles). Your not-at-all-pricey 250-500mW DPSS greens would probably do just fine, if you could keep them stable and on target.

        If your optics are shit, or there is fog/dust/substantial thermal shimmer, requirements would go up markedly...
    • How do you manage getting a beam of light inside a cockpit that opens facing upward?

      When the aircraft is in a landing approach it is angled downward. The nose is only 'up' when they flare out for landing.

      • by X0563511 (793323)

        If you nose down, you're doing it wrong. You should be level, and sinking. If you nose down without flaps, you'll be going forward to fast. If you nose down with flaps, you'll be going down too fast.

  • sad thing is ... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by markjhood2003 (779923) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @09:06PM (#34969028)
    They'll probably green lasers in the US before they'll ban semi-automatic handguns.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 22, 2011 @09:07PM (#34969038)

      No joke, once they green the lasers it's all over.

    • by Haedrian (1676506)

      If you outlaw laser pointers, only outlaws will have laser pointers.

    • Semi-automatic handguns have much shorter ranges.

  • by Bake (2609) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @09:07PM (#34969034) Homepage

    and just beat the shit out of them for being well on their way towards having those fun laser pointers banned completely?

  • by Kid Zero (4866) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @09:11PM (#34969060) Homepage Journal

    This is why we can't have nice things. Someone always has to be irresponsible.

  • by Haedrian (1676506)

    ...with these **********ing lasers on this **********ing plane!

  • by Anonymous Coward

    So, the biggest threat to airline travel is prankster laser pointer wielding yocals and not some loon putting explosives on a plane or hijacking it?!?

    Remember that when you're taking your shoes off, having your personal items picked through and groped by the TSA.

    • by warrigal (780670) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @09:28PM (#34969202)
      I doubt the problem is really pranksters.
      There has been a campaign for decades to close or at least move Sydney airport. It sits in an inner-city suburb that predates the airport.
      Every election sees both federal and state governments promising to do something about it.
      Spend some time in a suburb like Rockdale and you'll have to get used to large aircraft passing at chimney height all day and most of the night. At other airports with similar problems aircraft have been found with bullet holes in them. So I think the laser crew are being most restrained.
  • Accidental? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by SilverHatHacker (1381259) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @09:25PM (#34969180)
    Green lasers are often used for stargazing, since you can use the visible beam to point out specific stars. I wonder how many of these incidents are accidental hits either by idiots^W people who don't know the difference between a plane and a shooting star or who are honestly pointing out constellations while a plane just happens to fly through? Don't attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity and all that.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Yes, that's right... People accidentally aimed lasers into the pupils of pilots when the planes were far enough out that the pointer-holder couldn't tell the difference between a plane and a star.

      Learn some geometry and fucking get real.

    • Re:Accidental? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Nemyst (1383049) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @09:41PM (#34969308) Homepage

      You don't go near airports to watch the stars.

    • I assume you're not stargazing right beside an airport, so the planes are going to be at a pretty good altitude. How are you going to hit the cockpit?

    • Re:Accidental? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by PhrostyMcByte (589271) <phrosty@gmail.com> on Saturday January 22, 2011 @10:24PM (#34969588) Homepage

      I own a 100mw green laser pointer -- the rare times I end up showing it to people, all of them aim it out into the distance to hit some target -- usually a tree or phone pole. I quickly noticed about 1/4th of them would aim it at a helicopter or airplane. It's not malice -- it's stupidity. Now after telling people the dangers of pointing it at living things or reflective objects, I have to tell them not to point it at flying shit too.

      The chances of someone having a steady enough hand to hit a plane are slim. Being able to keep it on the plane for any significant amount of time to blind someone is even slimmer. The beam is around 4-8mm wide at 3 miles distance on an expensive laser pointer. I don't know if it would have enough power at that distance to blind or even annoy. But hey -- there is plenty of shit on the ground to point at, so I don't really care to test it.

      • A dark adapted pupil is 9mm in diameter, so an 8mm beam at 3 miles is just as dangerous as a 1mm beam at 10 centimeters. 100mW is well past the retinal damage threshold. Laser beams don't lose power with distance (in clear weather), they just expand. Until they expand to a diameter wider than a human pupil (such that the amount of power that can enter the eye at once actually drops), they're equally dangerous.

        However, your 8mm figure is way off as far as I can tell. A typical laser pointer has a divergence

  • by Dunbal (464142) * on Saturday January 22, 2011 @09:27PM (#34969198)

    Lasers pointed at cockpits can temporarily blind pilots

          Please cite examples of pilots who have temporarily been "blinded" by a laser.

    While it's a nuisance to see someone shine a laser beam around your cockpit, the plane's speed, the shakiness of human hands, and the distance from the person pointing it makes it unlikely that the laser beam will find its way directly into one of the two pupils a pilot may have for more than a fraction of a second.

    But America has given up on things like trigonometry, math and science, in favor of bullshit like this. The current situation is 1) Pilot and copilot see red dot jump momentarily around the cockpit and decide to report the incident, 2) Pilot and copilot agree to overstate the harm done to them in an effort to persuade authorities that this is a "serious problem" 3) The media gets hold of the story and distorts it further, screaming for the death penalty for anyone who owns a laser pointer and lives within 10 miles of an airport. But no one is willing to do the math.

    Yeah it's irresponsible to point lasers at airplanes. Call me if ever there's a serious incident that puts an aircraft in danger.

    • by MavEtJu (241979) <slashdot.mavetju@org> on Saturday January 22, 2011 @09:35PM (#34969272) Homepage

      This issue doesn't need to be that it reaches the pilot's eye(s), when the beam reaches the window and it "scatters" the beam giving it a bright area through which you can't see.

      • by Dunbal (464142) *

        OK I'll accept your point. But you would need some pretty expensive equipment to keep the beam steady, correct for the speed and altitude change of the aircraft if it's on glideslope, and make sure your beam is steady over the spot that exactly lines up between the pilot's eyes and the runway.

        • OK I'll accept your point. But you would need some pretty expensive equipment to keep the beam steady, correct for the speed and altitude change of the aircraft if it's on glideslope, and make sure your beam is steady over the spot that exactly lines up between the pilot's eyes and the runway.

          This equipment is called "hands", and pretty much everyone's got a pair.

          Or is it your point that the "blinding" only happens for a few seconds, what could go wrong in that time?

        • Doesn't need to be a steady beam, with a powerful laser it just takes a fraction of a second to dazzle a pilot and force him to abort a landing. I work at an airport and have flown in the cockpit enough times to tell you that landings are sketchy enough without some jackass on the ground trying to distract you. Fortunately the things are run in a modern cockpit makes switching command and aborting landing a fairly simple task, nevertheless it's just a matter of time before a pilot gets a laser in the eye

      • The bigger the area, the quadratically lower the brightness, am I right?

    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 22, 2011 @09:46PM (#34969336)

      Actually, it's a lot more complicated than that.

      Near my international airport (KSEA for those interested) is a public park on the north end of the airport, from there it is a ridiculously easy shoot into the cockpit with a laser at around 3 miles when aircraft are landing to the north (runways 34). At that range most green lasers beams are actually fairly wide, but still plenty bright, especially to eyes that have spent the last 6 hours acclimated to almost total darkness (pilots routinely turn the lights down at night) Since you bring up geometry, I submit to you that the angle from ground to cockpit at that distance is probably in the 10 degree range. And consider that these aircraft are landing from the south, facing north. The pilot is required to maintain contact with the runway lighting system at all times, including the lights leading up to the runway. If they can see lights 1/2 mile ahead of them, I think they can see the lights 3 miles ahead of them. If you'd like i'll get out my FAR/AIM (FAA rule bible) and quote you the regs.

      Now, lets talk the pussies argument. Would you want YOUR pilot to be even 1/4 blinded when operating at 175mph and 300 feet off the ground? Safety says you go around and let your eyes reacclimate. It's not that they could NEVER land the plane, but that given the other stressors already in place, why would you risk it? Remember we are in the plane with you, and we have just as much interest in going home to our families as you do.

      My credentials: Commerial rated, Multi-engine and Single-engine, with an unrestricted IFR rating.

      Posting AC due to lack of account, long time reader.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by koolfy (1213316)
        This is very very insightful and deserves to be read. I'll quote it to be sure people see it. (I don't have mod points)

        Actually, it's a lot more complicated than that.

        Near my international airport (KSEA for those interested) is a public park on the north end of the airport, from there it is a ridiculously easy shoot into the cockpit with a laser at around 3 miles when aircraft are landing to the north (runways 34). At that range most green lasers beams are actually fairly wide, but still plenty bright, especially to eyes that have spent the last 6 hours acclimated to almost total darkness (pilots routinely turn the lights down at night) Since you bring up geometry, I submit to you that the angle from ground to cockpit at that distance is probably in the 10 degree range. And consider that these aircraft are landing from the south, facing north. The pilot is required to maintain contact with the runway lighting system at all times, including the lights leading up to the runway. If they can see lights 1/2 mile ahead of them, I think they can see the lights 3 miles ahead of them. If you'd like i'll get out my FAR/AIM (FAA rule bible) and quote you the regs.

        Now, lets talk the pussies argument. Would you want YOUR pilot to be even 1/4 blinded when operating at 175mph and 300 feet off the ground? Safety says you go around and let your eyes reacclimate. It's not that they could NEVER land the plane, but that given the other stressors already in place, why would you risk it? Remember we are in the plane with you, and we have just as much interest in going home to our families as you do.

        My credentials: Commerial rated, Multi-engine and Single-engine, with an unrestricted IFR rating.

        Posting AC due to lack of account, long time reader.

      • by Dunbal (464142) * on Saturday January 22, 2011 @10:09PM (#34969482)

        No, I would rather live in a world where people behaved responsibly. Sadly that is impossible.

        I accept your argument, and I accept that night vision can be diminished by even a brief flash of light at night. I'm too lazy to calculate the energy density of a "wide", poorly collimated laser beam at 3 miles, however considering that these beams are usually powered by 5/1000ths of a watt or so, it's not a lot of energy to start with (the sun puts out around 24 times much energy per square centimeter). It's far less than 5 mW if you're not getting the whole "beam". I suspect that the impact on night vision is not much greater than looking at the instruments (which also emit light in a dark cockpit, and have to be checked quite often as you know).

        Rather than destroying vision I would claim that the biggest problem is surprise, and the chance of momentarily over-reacting or losing situational awareness because of that surprise. I agree that a pilot is quite busy during take off and landing, especially in weather and traffic, and anything unexpected is not good at all.

        What I hate, however, is an argument brought to the table for the wrong reasons. I hate to think of laser pointers being controlled or outlawed because of a handful of idiots since they do have their uses besides entertaining pets. The blurb said that there are well over 2000 incidents per year. I would point out that despite this, there has not been a single accident. So I do not condone taking people who point lasers at planes and burning them at the stake or, as is likely, charging them with PAX # counts of attempted murder, to be served consecutively.

          I still challenge that lost eyesight is the least of a pilot's worries, but this is the argument that is put forward. The pussies comment was a generalization based upon my opinion of a particular event in the news, because a flight crew came across as especially whiny and were threatening to sue the whole world because of this.

        • by TubeSteak (669689) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @11:07PM (#34969858) Journal

          ... however considering that these beams are usually powered by 5/1000ths of a watt or so, it's not a lot of energy to start with (the sun puts out around 24 times much energy per square centimeter). It's far less than 5 mW if you're not getting the whole "beam".

          Your argument is like saying that a 600,000 volt stun gun is only powered by one 9 volt battery.
          It's true, but irrelevant when you're lying on the ground twitching.

          I suspect that the impact on night vision is not much greater than looking at the instruments (which also emit light in a dark cockpit, and have to be checked quite often as you know).

          And now you're just making stuff up, but if you're confident in your assesment,
          I'd encourage you to test the effects of a green laser to the eyes from 3 miles away.

      • by jshackney (99735) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @11:38PM (#34970048) Homepage

        Just some clarifications... (and no, I'm not the AC)

        ...I submit to you that the angle from the ground to cockpit at that distance is probably in the 10 degree range.

        I'm just being nit-picky. I looked up KSEA's approaches. The glidepath (depending on the runway) varies from 2.75 degrees to 3.00 degrees. Not quite 10 degrees.

        Many laser incidents, according to ASRS [nasa.gov], have occured during the landing phase when the aircraft is "inside" the Final Approach Fix--generally less than five nautical miles from the runway threshold. This is typically a point where the aircraft is approximately 1,500 feet above ground traveling at approximately 130 to 150 knots. Y'all are smart, you can figure out the MPH. It's only a matter of moments before ground contact if directional control is compromised.

        ...maintain contact with the runway lighting system...

        Well, sort of. 14 CFR 91.175 gives the instrument-rated pilot a laundry list of options, but to over-simplify it, if you can't see something that defines the runway, you can't land there.

        Remember we are in the plane with you, and we have just as much interest in going home to our families as you do.

        I've used that same response when asked, "Where are the parachutes?" by our most skittish infrequent fliers.

        Oh, I didn't read them all, but I didn't notice a report of a red laser in the cockpit. The majority of them are reported as being green.

        Now, on a personal note, I have never seen a laser cross my cockpit. However, I have been struck by lightning twice (each time during the day) and it is incredibly blinding if you happen to be looking straight at the discharge. I realize this is apples and oranges in terms of candlepower, but the point is that it is surprising, and it will "reset" your night vision if the intensity is enough to adjust the iris. I could easily see the flying pilot being forced to transfer control of the aircraft to the non-flying pilot--a potentially reportable incident to the NTSB.

    • I have to agree. I've heard reports of this for a long time but how is this even possible? Scattering on the windows? They're pointed upwards as well from what I've seen of big planes. Maybe they're talking about small aircraft. I just can't see 1500 incidences a year, though. Maybe the pilots are confusing the phenomena with something else.

      This should be on an episode of mythbusters.

      • by khallow (566160)

        I just can't see 1500 incidences a year, though.

        If I shine a laser every night at a plane, then I created 365 or so incidents. If I do so at 4 different airports each night, then I created almost 1500 right there.

    • by v1 (525388)

      While it's a nuisance to see someone shine a laser beam around your cockpit, the plane's speed, the shakiness of human hands, and the distance from the person pointing it makes it unlikely that the laser beam will find its way directly into one of the two pupils a pilot may have for more than a fraction of a second.

      Moreso than that. The average consumer laser's columnating lens is much lower quality than scientific grade. My pointers have some serious expansion and scatter. At about a block the green dot that used to be 1/8" wide and sharply defined at a few feet away is about the size of a beachball. (the central dot, the scatter will be well over dumpster size)

      So there is quite a bit of spread for most laser pointers. I don't think it poses anywhere near the usual safety issue of flat out getting permanent blind

    • by thegarbz (1787294)
      The distance actually makes it far easier. These aren't precise scientific instruments, and the majority of laser pointers that can be bought for a price affordable by the normal person actually produces a slightly diverging beam. Sure it looks 2mm across on your desk however from 1km down the road the beam is several meters in diameter. This isn't a red dot. It will light the pilot's cockpit up like a fire and will likely make it impossible to look out the window.

      Now if someone is pointing a 5mW red las
  • by trygstad (815846) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @09:33PM (#34969254)
    ...by a laser while piloting a helicopter and it's scary as hell. I don't have a solution but I sure wish I did. There are some sick puppies out there that this continues to go on. These people should be arrested and prosecuted but I recognize that it's difficult to impossible to catch these idiots.
  • They're an annoyance everywhere they're used.
  • ... don't they have anything better to do, like eat some surfers? And just who gave them the lasers in the first place? Damn Pentagon!

  • by Okian Warrior (537106) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @09:56PM (#34969404) Homepage Journal

    This is an example of the "fallacy of the transposed conditional" and how people use it to justify legislation that does nothing to address the problem.

    See if you can assign a likelihood (high or low) to the following:

    Probability that someone has a laser, given that they shined one at an airplane,
    Probability that someone shines one at an airplane, given that they have a laser.

    The likelihood that anyone having a laser will use it against an airplane is so astronomically small that legislation will have no appreciable effect, but will inconvenience many people.

    The logic is precisely backwards, but it sounds like a justification.

    Someone should introduce the legislators down under to Bayes Theorem.

  • put a kW class laser on the planes and fire back
  • by bakamorgan (1854434) on Saturday January 22, 2011 @10:17PM (#34969536)
    There was a video on youtube from a news channel that showed what happend when a green laser hit the cockput of a plane/helio but I can't seem to find it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5r5-bMstX6g [youtube.com] This is about all I can find. Anyways its not so much the fact that it goes into the pilots eye, it's just that illuminates the cockpit like a disco which then doesn't allow the person to see out side the window.
  • by BeanThere (28381) on Sunday January 23, 2011 @07:42AM (#34971874)

    "resulted in a ban on all laser pointers in the state of New South Wales."

    Sigh ... can we please ban 'knee-jerk banning' based on statistically highly unlikely incidents that don't even actually cause safety problems because 'this is why we have co-pilots' (an incident that was probably already illegal in this case)?

    Why don't we just ban EVERYTHING, in advance, just in case anyone uses it in a bad way? Woman throws an ashtray at husband's head? Ban ashtrays! Man throws coffee mug back? Ban mugs! A child trips over a LAN cable? Ban LAN cables!

    But why wait? Let's introduce a new bill called the "Ban Everything Bill".

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