Thursday, January 20, 2011

What Pin heads Point Lasers at Airplanes?

FAA tests effect of lasers on pilots on a 737 simulator
Technology givith and technology taketh away, that’s the only way to look at today’s aviation news coming just a day after my story in The New York Times - now reverberating around the globe (and even plagiarized in London’s Mail for a day but that's another story) - that personal electronic devices can interfere with cockpit instruments. 

Now comes word that newer, more powerful laser pointers are being used more frequently against airplanes flying at low altitudes. The Federal Aviation Administration released the numbers on Wednesday with the disturbing characterization that 2010 set an all-time high for laser attacks on airplanes in the United States with a whopping 2836 cases reported.

Now if you’re like me you’re wondering “what the heck is going on here?” Even Ian Gregor, the spokesman for the FAA says he’s confounded. OK, well he’s being modest. He has some ideas about what is contributing to the problem.

Basically the nearly three thousand instances of someone shining a laser at an airplane is the result of a few technological advances working together and heightened attention being paid to the problem by pilots and air traffic controllers. 

In the olden days, and that would be the day before yesterday, consumer-grade, low-level laser pointers were red, which is lower on the visible spectrum and therefore more difficult to see. So someone could be shining a red laser at an airplane, but no one in the plane might see it. 

As technology advanced however, the price of the easier-to-see green lasers went down so that any kid can buy one with allowance money. 
Now lasers as you know radiate for miles and an airplane on takeoff or approach or a helicopter hovering are well within range. Not only does the light radiated from a laser go on and on, it diffuses with distance so a pinpoint close by can be several feet in diameter by the time it hits an airplane at 2 thousand feet, which as luck would have it, is around the time when pilots are busiest and must be extremely focused.

So you’re a pilot concentrating on a lot of things having to do with making that safe transition from air to ground or ground to air and all of a sudden a big, bright wave of light comes flooding in to your darkened cockpit. It must look something like this…

The FAA has been involved in a publicity campaign of sorts with Administrator Randy Babbitt blogging about the problem on the DOT's website and Ian is speaking to various community groups and that sort of thing.

"We think if we get the word out that there's nothing amusing, funny or humorous about pointing a laser at an aircraft," Ian told me on the phone last night, that will make the point, he said, adding that people caught can face criminal penalties.

Laser events are not confined to airliners. General aviation and helicopter operators have reported problems. Nor is this an American phenomenon. The laser fad is international. My friend and regular blog commentator Jorg Handwerg a German pilot was dealing with a rash of laser events the last time we were together in the Fall. 

The third contributing factor comes from Samuel Goldwasser an engineer and laser specialist who gave me the Laser 101 last night, referring me to principals "you remember learning in Physics." (I do?) Despite his PhD, Goldwasser told me in 100% jargon-free English, “The cost of green laser pointers has dropped to the point where almost any nutcase can buy one.”

"Calling these 'attacks' is probably too strong. Most are idiots having fun, not realizing the potential for catastrophic results," Dr. Goldwasser said.

The real question is why does anyone do this? From my cruising around the online laser-loving community I note enthusiasm for two activities, do-it-yourself modifications to increase the power of lasers, and interest in taking these devices out for a spin. 

From this I conclude trying to hit an airplane is unlikely to involve malevolent intent. Because, call me an optimist, I just can’t imagine that there are thousands of people out there who want to cause an airplane crash.   But if news stories, blogging or even the arrest of laserists caught red (green) handed don't penetrate the fog of obliviousness surrounding this new age target practice,  disaster is a real possibility.


delete this blogger account said...


You're probably right that most laser "attacks" in the U.S. aren't malevolent, but they might be overseas. My husband is an Air Force pilot, and they have been issued special protective glasses to ward off constant laser interference in the Middle East.

Thanks for the great report on electronic devices!

Tiffany Hawk

raccoon said...

Christine, thank you so much for your more-accurate-than-ever reporting on lasers in the cockpit, especially with regards to laser enthusiasts and the effects on pilots.

Your piece on Thursday is a refreshing 180° turn from those given to us in 2004~2005, when these events first broke the airwaves with claims of 'dancing laser beams in cockpits' and 'burning pilots corneas'. I love your zero-hype approach to reporting and thank you for taking time to visit laser forums where I think it's obvious you exchanged some dialog with us.

I do believe like you that the majority of these incidents are not malicious in nature. I rather believe they're the result of uneducated and immature young adults playing with a new toy. I personally wouldn't describe these particular owners as 'laser enthusiasts' because pointing at airplanes is a blatant mistake of judgment that true hobbyists and backyard astronomers are careful to avoid, but semantics aside, I agree with all of the points you made in your interview.

My many wishes to you and your successful career in journalism. Take care.


jwenting said...

""Calling these 'attacks' is probably too strong. Most are idiots having fun, not realizing the potential for catastrophic results," Dr. Goldwasser said"

The same way that kids throwing 30lbs blocks of concrete from highway overpasses onto car windshields at semi-random aren't attacks I guess.
Those kids don't care who they maim or kill, but they are intent on maiming and killing (as most every case of this happening where the perps are apprehended shows on interrogation).

p.s. googleads work brilliant, 2 ads for green laser pointers at consumer prices with this post...