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Living With Laser Strikes: How Pilots Can Cope with This Deadly Nuisance

Kevin Pstuka knows about laser strikes from personal experience. The former President and CEO of the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) was flying out of Arnprior, Ontario with his son one night “when we got struck by a laser light on the right side of the aircraft,” Psutka told Canadian Aviator. “Fortunately, neither of us were looking in that direction when it hit. We reported the strike to the police when it happened, but by the time they got there, whoever shot the laser pointer at us was gone.”

Captain Ian Smith’s experience with laser strikes was more dire. The Air Canada pilot (and President of the Air Canada Pilots Association) was on final approach to Toronto International Airport, with his first officer at the wheel, when someone on the ground fired a laser pointer at the cockpit. “I saw the diffused laser light moving around the cockpit,” said Captain Smith. “My first officer said, ‘you have control’, and I took over the landing. As I set us down, he said, ‘I’ve lost vision in my right eye’.”

Fortunately, Captain Smith’s first officer regained vision in his right eye. This is common after cockpit laser strikes: The incoming laser pointer beam is sufficiently diffused by distance and the plane’s windshield to expand into an overpoweringly bright large spot. Usually, this spot temporarily blinds the pilot who kooks it, but does not cause permanent damage to their eyes.

At the same time, the laser strike blinds the pilot from seeing their instruments inside and looking outside of their aircraft. The laser strike also startles them sufficiently to potentially break their concentration; usually when the plane or helicopter is close to ground and in at risk of impacts. That the news isn’t full of stories of aircraft crashing following laser strikes is a credit to the pilots who are attacked; yet keep their planes and passengers aloft and alive.

Unfortunately, the incidence of laser strikes are increasing at an alarming rate. According to Transport Canada, there were 502 aircraft laser strikes reported in 2014; up 43% since 2012. Laser strikes are also up in the United States; from 3,894 strikes in all of 2014 to 2,750 reported attacks during the first half of 2015.

In response to these attacks, Transport Canada has launched a laser[pointer safety campaign called “Not a Bright Idea’. Created in partnership with Vancouver International Airport (YVR) – where aircraft had 52 laser strikes in 2014 -- NAV CANADA, and the RCMP, “Not A Bright Idea” talks about the dangers and legal consequences of aiming laser pointers at planes and helicopters. However, given that laser strikes are usually committed by boys and men – the FBI says that 89 of the 93 people arrested for laser strikes in 2015 were male – it seems unlikely that these ads will make much of a difference. “After all, cheap laser pointers are available in stores to anyone who wants to buy one,” said Patrick Murphy, editor of
His site has illustrations of laser strikes as seen in the cockpit, and advice on how to deal with them.

So what can a pilot do to defend themselves against laser strikes? Here are three options:

It Starts With Awareness

Given that laser strikes on aircraft are increasing, pilots have to be ready to recognize and deal with this threat. Helping them is Patrick Murphy, a laser technology/laser safety who co-wrote the FAA’s Laser Beam Exposure Questionnaire and an FAA document (in draft) summarizing laser hazards and mitigation for pilots.

“Laser strikes are very manageable for pilots, if they know what to do,” Murphy said. This preparedness starts with recognizing a laser strike when it occurs: “It can look like seeing a searchlight beam coming towards you, or a sudden, windscreen-filling flash with no indication of direction.”

When a laser strike occurs, stay calm and remember the first law of flying: Keep flying the plane. “If you have a co-pilot, turn over the stick to them,” said Patrick Murphy. “If not, give yourself a few seconds to get a grip of the situation. Advise the tower if you are in a critical element of flight such as landing, and stay on track with what you are doing; unless a go-around is still possible.. Otherwise, hold steady – but still report the strike as soon as you can to ground. In some instances, you may be able to turn away from the light to cease the attack.”

Dealing with a laser strike is akin to dealing with the sun pouring in your windscreen. Don’t look into it directly, but rather on either side of it. Turn your control panel lights up to full brightness, to offset the closing of your pupils. If you can, block the laser with your hand or an available object, like a clipboard. “And whatever you do, do not rub your eyes vigorously,” said Murophy. “You can irritate your eyes, and cause tearing or a corneal abrasion.”

Consider Getting Protective Eyewear

Pilots use sunglasses to protect their eyes from glare. Surely the same option can be used to protect against laser attacks?

Yes it can, and it is. There are a number of companies making laser protective eyewear for pilots.
They include aviator-style glasses from Iridian Spectral Technologies (LaseReflect), Nightflight Concepts (Laser Armor), Noir (Laser Shields), PerriQuest (Laser Defense Eyewear), Philips Safety (Laser Strike Eyewear), and Sperian Protection (Laser-Gard).

“The laser pointers that emit green, red and blue light all work within a very narrow spectrum of light,” said PerriQuest Lead Scientist Kristin Rauschenbach, “Our Laser Defense Eyewear filters out these frequencies by reflecting 99% of them away from the eyewear. The remaining one percent is enough for the pilot to see that an attack is taking place, without blinding them.” This eyewear will filter laser strikes coming in from 60 degrees of either side of the viewer’s visual centrepoint.

Protective Window Film

Ideally, a protective window film that would filter out laser light would be the most effective solution to laser attacks. Once installed, the film would take care of this threat without pilots having to worry about it – or don protective eyewear.

Lamda Guard of Dartsmouth, Nova Scotia has developed such a protective film, and is now working with Airbus Industries to make a version for aviation use. “Our film uses nano-structured metamaterials to attenuate incoming laser light by a factor up to 10,000 times,” said George Palikaras, Lamda Guard’s President and CEO. “The film contain hundreds of layers of nanostructures that interact with laser beams, deflecting harmful light – even at high power levels – from any angle.”

Thinner than a human hair, Lamda Guard film essentially reflects the incoming laser away from the cockpit window. The film is sensitive only to the frequencies associated with laser light, and will be easily applicable to the inside of cockpit windows. 

Solutions Exist

The best news for pilots is that laser strikes can be managed, just as they manage other threats in the cockpit. This fact allows pilots to take control of this problem, which is vitally important. The chances of deterring teenaged males from doing foolish things with laser pointers is pretty near nil.