January 31, 2011

Reports of pointer-type lasers aimed at aircraft almost doubled in 2010 from the previous year to more than 2,800, with business-type aircraft accounting for an estimated 25 percent of the incidents involved, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently reported. Laser beams from the ground can distract or temporarily blind pilots at low altitudes when taking off or landing.

The January 19 FAA report didn’t identify targeted flights by mission, but an NBAA- requested analysis showed that about 700 of the 2,836 reports came from pilots of twin- engine piston, turboprop, helicopter or turbine fixed wing aircraft, the most common aircraft types used in business flying.

Even low-power pointer-type lasers can cause glare, flash-blindness or afterimages and cause “some degree of operational difficulty” in landing, a 2004 FAA report concluded. Business aircraft with slower approach speeds than airliners are more susceptible to targeted laser blasts.

“We’ve known all along that business aviation isn’t immune from laserings,” said Doug Carr, NBAA Vice President, Safety, Security & Regulation. “What’s really troubling is the rate of increase.” He also said that two new hand-held laser types, one with a green beam and the other a blue beam, are capable of greatly increased power and more severe interference with pilot vision.

NBAA found one of the new hand-held green lasers advertised for $299 on an online web site, boasting 200 times the legal power limit for pointer-type lasers. A unit 40 times the legal power limit is listed for $45 on another popular shopping website. Other pointer-type lasers are available for as little as $2.50.

FAA spokeswoman Tammy L. Jones said that the 2,836 aircraft laserings in 2010 averaged more than seven each night of the year, close to double the 1,527 reported in 2009 and a startling 845-percent increase over the 300 reported in 2005. Unlike previous years, the vast majority of 2010 aircraft laserings were with the newer green beams.

“I’m sure it’s mostly otherwise law-abiding citizens near airports who are playing with their new laser toy,” said Doug Carr, NBAA Vice President of Safety, Security and Regulation. “They probably have no idea of the danger to passengers and crew they’re causing by pointing at an aircraft taking off or landing.”

Earlier this month, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt acknowledged the problem, saying that a ban on lasers or other regulations might be needed if a public education campaign is not effective. “We don’t want to see this develop to where we’re investigating an accident,” said Babbitt.

However, there is no coordinated public education campaign now in place, Carr said, urging the FAA and the handheld laser industry to develop one and focus it on populations living near airports.

He also recommended that flight crews and managers read the 2009 FAA publication “Laser Hazards In Navigable Airspace,” which contains suggestions for minimizing a laser attack. The current FAA Advisory Circular 70-2, which contains reporting requirements and coordinating information, is also recommended.

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