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The Air Up There Podcast

Lose the Laser

Season 2, Episode 12
Published: Friday, May 28, 2021

Last year, there were nearly 7,000 reported laser strikes against pilots — and those are just the ones that were reported. In fact, laser strikes increased during 2020 despite a lower number of air traffic operations. Laser lights can pose a serious safety risk to pilots flying aircraft, and pointing a laser at an aircraft is a federal crime.

Learn what a laser strike is, what impact they have on pilots, and how FAA partners with law enforcement to stop them on this episode of The Air Up There.

Find out more about laser strikes and read this blog post for tips on using a laser safely. Want to report a laser strike?

Lose the Laser

Lose the Laser

Transcript

Dominique Gebru:
You're listening to The Air Up There, a podcast about the wide world of aviation and aerospace. I'm Dominique Gebru.

Allen Kenitzer:
And I'm Allen Kenitzer. When I heard the FAA had troubles with reported lasers strikes, I pictured Star Wars and sci-fi, but it turns out, laser strikes are a big deal to pilots in the air, not long ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Dominique Gebru:
Pew, pew, pew. Punch it, Chewie. Imagine someone shining a flashlight in your eyes at night and really messing up your ability to see while you're in a dark room. Now imagine that when you're going hundreds of miles an hour at thousands of feet in the sky with dozens of people's lives in your hands.

Allen Kenitzer:
If Han Solo or Chewie were flying around the National Aerospace System, I bet they'd have strong feelings about this issue too. Our colleague, Nia Fields, sat down for a Zoom conversation with Tim Wallace, FAA Manager of Operational Security Initiatives, but you can think of him as one of the FAA's laser strike experts. Tim will tell us exactly what a laser strike is because, like me, I'm sure the public really doesn't know what that term means.

Tim Wallace:
First of all, why don't we just define what is a laser strike? Basically what happens is as planes are flying around in the sky, people on the ground who have laser pointers sometimes point them at aircraft. The way that looks to the pilot is it creates a dazzling effect on the flight deck and it causes them to sometimes not be able to perform their duties and can even cause them to lose vision or all kinds of other bad effects.

Tim Wallace:
It's obviously something very concerning to the FAA and we've been tracking data for this since 2010. Really since 2015, the number of reported laser events has held steady at right around 6,000 to 7,000 events each year. We also saw a really big spike in 2015. It went from 4,000 events to around 7,000 events and this year appears to be on track for about that same ballpark number between 6,000 and 7,000. We're like, Why did we have this great big increase in 2015 from 4,000 to 7,000? What happened? Was it because of more reporting? Was it because of more events? That seemed to be a big spike, so we did a study.

Tim Wallace:
One of the box carriers, as we call them, actually had really good standards for their pilots to report laser events from the very beginning. We felt like we could use them as our control. If we saw an increase with this particular company, then we knew that, overall, the number of events was increasing. What we really wanted to understand were reports versus more events. What we concluded from that little study is it was about half and half actually, which added a little insight. It made it a little less disconcerting, I guess, that some of it was simply more reporting because of pilot awareness to report these events.

Nia Fields:
With the increase in laser strikes, was it in specific states?

Tim Wallace:
Yeah, really since 2010, we've seen the same patterns. States with larger populations seem to have the greatest number of events, things you would expect like California, and Texas, and Florida, and Arizona, and Pennsylvania. Those were the top five. However, if you correct for population, some really interesting patterns come out from that. Hawaii, surprise, has 64 events per person, as compared to say Nevada, and Puerto Rico, and Arizona, and Oregon and Utah. They're all around 40 events per person. The winning state is Hawaii, which is really surprising. Now, what's interesting is the cities, more or less, matched the states. We've also noticed that most events happen between midnight and 7:00 AM, and also in the cooler months between September and February. That's where we seem to see the most activity of laser events.

Nia Fields:
Why do you think we're seeing an increase in laser strikes?

Tim Wallace:
That's a great question and one that we've wondered a lot about as the numbers increase. Now, the good news is from 2014 to 2015 where we saw that big spike, since 2015, the number of recorded events have remained about the same. I really think what's driving it is first, there was that genuine increase in the number of events. I think that was because they're very accessible to just about anybody. Then the second reason is pilots now know that they need to report these events to the FAA as they occur. Between reporting and an increase in events driven by more lasers, I think those are the two biggest drivers. The good news is pilots are willing to report now because they feel like there's at least a chance that something can be done.

Nia Fields:
Thank you so much for speaking with us today, Mr. Tim. What would you like to say to people who are pointing lasers at airplanes?

Tim Wallace:
The FAA has made a lot of efforts to publicize this laser data, and I know there's a lot of really smart people in industry and academia who are looking at that data. Certainly, if they observe anything that's noteworthy that they think we'd be interested in knowing about, please let us know the trends and patterns that are a little harder to identify. Let's make this a two-way conversation and that way we can work towards that zero event goal together. Wouldn't that be great for the safety of the aviation community if we could do that together?

Allen Kenitzer:
Thousands of laser strikes a year, Dominique. That's just the ones that are reported.

Dominique Gebru:
I know, right? It's way less fun than set phasers to stun, Mr. Spock. Pilots have gotten so much better about reporting and being aware that strikes can occur over the last 10 years, but even with all the planning and preparation that goes into flying, laser strikes can still catch them off guard. That's a really serious thing. Our colleague, Arlene Salac, sat down with three folks over zoom to break down what happens in the cockpit, what happens to the pilot and how law enforcement is addressing incidents on the ground. We're going to play the three conversations back-to-back to help paint a picture for our listeners. You're going to hear from Jill Mills, who's a pilot, Dr. Harriet Lester, who's an FAA flight surgeon and ophthalmologist, and Montana Alexander, who works for the FAA security division.

Jill Mills:
If you are intensely focused on something and you're expecting whether you've briefed it, you can expect the maintenance thing. You can expect that, you'd be prepared to go around. I would say a laser is not something you're like, Okay, I'm going to do this if I get a laser. I'm going to do this if a laser hits my eye. I would not say that we get so many of them that is in the forefront of our minds because it's not something that you deal with every day.

Jill Mills:
Your eyes are acclimated to this very low, low light because you want everything to be focused outside to be able to land all your instruments, your flight instruments and your engine instruments to be in the exact right focus. You've tweaked it to be perfection by this point. All of a sudden, you get a laser strike. It could either pilot, both pilots and if it doesn't even hit either of us, if it lights up our flight deck, it also is very alarming. You don't know where that's coming from. Could it have been a fire where it hit? Did it spark something? It's very unusual to see a bright light in the flight deck. It doesn't necessarily need to actually hit the pilot to be able to startle us.

Arlene Salac:
Jill, can you describe what it would be like to have a laser strike while landing the aircraft?

Jill Mills:
You can imagine if you're sitting in a dark room and then somebody opens the door. You're squinting, had to take a second to readjust, but all that time that you're readjusting, you're in a most critical phase of flight. You're down low, you're going fast, you have hundreds of people behind you that you're in charge of their safety. That'd be the worst time ever to get a laser strike.

Arlene Salac:
Have you ever had a laser strike when you were flying?

Jill Mills:
I can happily say I have never had a laser strike, but I've worked with multiple pilots that have, so that's part of my job. We do the reports, and we have checklists to fill out and we point them to doing those and make sure they get done. We have protocol that if you do get hit, you would have to be re-crewed and it can affect the next few flights coming down the pike as well. When I look at flying an airplane, it's a great job and how fun it is and all that. I honestly think that I am in charge of over 180 people that are sitting behind me and it's all about safety.

Jill Mills:
I always think that I put in my brain that could be my family, or maybe it is my family or my friends sitting in the back. I implore like anybody on the ground that thinks it could be fun to point a laser at a pilot or at a plane, that you know what? Your family, your friends, your people might be on that plane and you're risking their lives by doing that. We need to just get the word out that everything about aviation is about safety. It's fun to talk about it all afterwards, but while we're doing it, it's really intense, basically all the way to landing, all the way until the time where you stop and taxi off. The second that you relax is really when you set the brakes at the gate and you just don't want any distractions, and those lasers are very distracting.

Dr. Harriet Lester:
I've been regional flight surgeon for Eastern Region for 20 years and because I'm also a board certified ophthalmologist, I have been in a unique position to have the cases referred to me to speak to pilots and find out what happened. When I interview them, it's a fine line that I walk because on the one hand, I want their engagement. We really want to find out if there are significant injuries. On the other hand, we realize the pilots have been victimized by the laser strike. As a regional flight surgeon, I am playing both the role of the regional flight surgeon, but also subject matter expert from a medical side.

Arlene Salac:
Dr. Lester, why are lasers so dangerous for pilots?

Dr. Harriet Lester:
Lasers are actually used therapeutically in ophthalmology. Depending upon the wavelength, the laser will preferentially go to different levels of the eye in a positive way. In the case of a laser strike, it's used in an uncontrolled manner and the amount of laser light that the eyes exposed to is not predictable. From a medical standpoint, we are concerned to hear what has happened to the pilot. Now, when a pilot is struck by a laser, initially, if it's at a very close distance, they're going to be really incapacitated. Lasers obviously are not going to be able to contact an aircraft that's at 30,000 feet, but it's upon approach or take off and more typically, approach that the laser occurs. There are a lot of different ways this can impact a pilot. You're dazed. You have a bright light. You don't know what to do if you're not trained. If you are in the dark, which is usually the case, you're dark adapted. All of a sudden you've brightened the lighting and so now you've lost the benefit of that dark adaptation and that decreases your night vision.

Arlene Salac:
What would you like to say to the public about laser safety?

Dr. Harriet Lester:
My message is twofold. What you think is a game or a toy is actually a weapon and do not direct them at aircraft, or vehicles or anybody because they are weaponry and you will wind up, if you're caught after a laser attack, with a felony conviction.

Montana Alexander:
I work with the FAA Security Division. This falls under ASH and ASH stands for Aviation Security and Hazardous Materials. Now, the Law Enforcement Assistance Program, or LEAP, as we refer to it falls under ASH and our mission is twofold. Number one, we protect the national airspace. Number two is we assist law enforcement with incidents that have some sort of aviation connection.

Arlene Salac:
Montana, how does the FAA work with law enforcement and laser strike investigations?

Montana Alexander:
With hundreds of laser strikes that occur each month and thousands each year, LEAP agents like myself and law enforcement have been able to fine tune our investigative skills regarding these incidents. We've been able to expand our training to pilots as well as to officers. We've implemented the use of high-tech equipment in certain aircraft belonging to law enforcement, which have helped us to locate and identify some of these subjects perpetrating these incidents. This is a direct result of the seriousness of lazing and these incidents. Like many crimes, both law enforcement and the FAA see the need for education, outreach and the need for cooperation from the public to be able to address this going forward.

Arlene Salac:
Can you give us specific examples of laser strike incidents?

Montana Alexander:
One particular incident has to do with a child playing with the laser they received for Christmas. Inadvertently, that laser was pointed up directly into the sky and ended up lasing some helicopters that were conducting public safety activities. Ultimately, the pilot did have temporary flash blindness and he was grounded for a few days after that incident because it was determined by his medical division that it wasn't safe to fly until his eyes fully recovered. Basically, this really illustrated a two-fold aspect of these incidents that we see. Number one is the carelessness. Being aware that these lasers could potentially hurt or harm someone and then the inaction by those observing the activity. This is a common role that we see in these incidents after the fact and after our investigations. Ultimately, it's up to the public to be able to see something and say something so that we don't continue to see these and impact aviation in a negative way.

Arlene Salac:
What message would you like to send out to the public about minimizing laser strike incidents?

Montana Alexander:
Lasing aircraft is not a game and lasers really are not toys. What seems like a tiny little beam of light at the source when you're playing with it, expands to a light ray that could measure several feet in diameter. By the time it hits a cockpit. That bouncing around that cockpit with glass and shiny knobs and metal, it really puts lives at risk and we need the help of the public to understand this. It's a federal crime to shine a light at an aircraft. Unfortunately, this comes with ramifications. You could face a fine up to $250,000 and even five years in jail. Then the FAA could step in and they could impose a penalty of up to $11,000. I think that's per incident, or per violation. Shining the light of a laser into the cockpit of an aircraft can temporarily blind the pilots we rely on to transport us through the air at several thousand feet so we could arrive at our destination. This jeopardizes that activity and it jeopardizes those potentially on the ground as many lazing incidents occurred during takeoff or even landing. When this happens, we request you say something and remember lasers aren't toys.

Dominique Gebru:
All right, you heard each of our guests say it, lasers are not toys and this is not a game.

Allen Kenitzer:
The good news is that the FAA, pilots, and law enforcement are all on board that laser strikes are an issue. They're all focused on educating the public to be more cautious and aware, so do pilots a favor and lose the laser.

Dominique Gebru:
Ending on a strong note, that's it for this episode. You've been listening to The Air Up There. If you liked today's episode, please subscribe and share it with someone else. We'd also really appreciate it if you'd leave us a review. You can find the FAA on social media too, or @FAA on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn, @FAANews on Twitter and YouTube and @FAAdronezone on Twitter and Facebook.

Allen Kenitzer:
Thanks for listening.