To: (Separate email addresses with commas)
From: (Your email address)
Message: (Optional)
Send
Cancel

Thanks!

Close

Why Laser Strikes Are Hazardous To Pilots

This story was made in partnership with AOPA. Ready to join the largest aviation community in the world? Sign up and save $10 when you become an AOPA Member today.
Boldmethod

The FAA says that in 2021 it's received the highest number of unauthorized laser reports since 2016. Could you be next?

We'll explain the dangers and what to do if you find yourself in this situation. But first, check out this video of someone getting arrested for pointing a laser at an aircraft:

How Your Eyes Adapt At Night

Your eyes work by converting light into electrical signals through the use of photo-sensitive cells called rods and cones.

Laser strikes are most dangerous at night when your eyes have already adjusted to the darkness. This is because unlike during the day, your color sensing cones become less effective, and your eye's light-sensing rods take over.

The good news is that once your eyes are adjusted to the darkness, your rods become 10,000 times more sensitive than your cones (FAA PHAK 17-22). But with the good comes the bad. As your eyes become more sensitive to light at night, they're also more susceptible to damaging laser strikes.

By The Numbers

In all of 2020, the FAA received 6,852 laser reports from flight crews. Compare this to the 8,549 reports the FAA received from January - November 2021, and there is no doubt that laser strikes have increased. In the same time period in 2020, the FAA had received just 6,057 reports.

Laser Strike Hazards

Laser strike incidents range from low-powered annoyances to high-powered devices intended to injure pilots.

Lasers emit a narrow beam of similar wavelength light that can be concentrated in one spot, causing damage to you if pointed at your eyes. In the cockpit, a laser's beam can bounce off the windshield, causing the cockpit to illuminate with blinding flashes.

It doesn't help that the majority of laser strikes happen in critical phases of flight like take-off and landing, when aircraft are in close proximity to the ground.

FBI.gov

If the laser is high-powered enough it can actually burn your cornea causing temporary blinding or eye damage. According to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, "Pointing a laser at an aircraft can temporarily blind a pilot and, not only affects the crew, but also endangers passengers."

The main dangers of a laser strike are:

  • Flash blindness, just like looking into the powerful flash of a camera a laser can create temporary blindness.
  • Startle factor during takeoff, approach, or landing.
  • Glare.
  • Disorientation.

For this reason, pointing a laser at an aircraft is a felony, punishable with up to $250,000 in fines and 5 years in prison.

What To Do If You Are Struck By A Laser

The first step to mitigating a laser strike is to recognize what is happening. Prolonged hesitation can result in more severe injury.

Once you identify what is happening, if you have a copilot that is unaffected, consider transferring controls or engaging your autopilot. And if you can, block the light with a tablet, hat, kneeboard, etc.

The major DON'Ts of a laser strike event are:

  • Looking outside or in the direction of the laser. Controlling the aircraft is more important than finding the precise origin of the strike.
  • Rubbing your eyes - this can cause more significant damage to your cornea.

Reporting A Laser Strike

Once you've gained positive control of your aircraft, you should report the laser activity to ATC. Items to include in your report:

  • Who you are (callsign)
  • Your position
  • Laser Color
  • Duration
  • Assistance needed

Telling ATC that you were struck by a laser not only helps them warn surrounding aircraft, but also helps law enforcement track down individuals firing the lasers. Reporting a laser strike rarely leads to any paperwork or phone calls, so there's no reason to keep quiet.

Have you ever been struck by a laser while flying? What did you do? Tell us in the comments below.


Ready to join the largest aviation community in the world? Sign up and save $10 when you become an AOPA Member today. Hurry, offer ends 12/31/22.


Nicolas Shelton

Nicolas is a flight instructor from Southern California. He is currently studying aviation at Purdue University. He's worked on projects surrounding aviation safety and marketing. You can reach him at nicolas@boldmethod.com.

Images Courtesy:

Recommended Stories

Latest Stories

    Load More
    Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via Email