In an era where technology seems to be as much a foe as a friend, the tranquillity of nighttime flying is being threatened by an unexpected adversary: laser strikes. These incidents, where planes are targeted with laser beams while they are a few thousand feet above the ground, have become a significant concern for the global aviation industry. Laser strikes pose a substantial risk to airline operations, as they have the ability to temporarily blind flight crews, potentially triggering a medical or operational emergency.
The occurrence of laser strikes is on the rise, with the number of reported incidents increasing from almost 7,400 in 2016 to 9,457 in 2022, according to US data. While it’s a challenging task to catch the culprits behind these strikes, it is a federal crime in the United States, Europe, and most of the world to point an illuminated laser at a plane. Those found guilty can face hefty fines, with a single incident potentially costing the offender up to $11,000, and multiple violations can result in fines of up to $30,800.
The Threat of Laser Strikes to Night Flights
Nighttime flying is often considered more serene than its daytime counterpart; smoother air, less traffic, fewer voices on the radio, and the ease of direct-to navigational fixes make it particularly desirable. However, this tranquility is marred by the lurking danger of laser strikes.
Where and Why Laser Strikes Occur
Laser strikes typically occur when a plane is low, within a few thousand feet of the surface. Striking a plane moving at speeds of hundreds of miles per hour, thousands of feet above, is virtually impossible, even for the most potent lasers. Yet, these strikes present a significant risk as operations below 10,000 feet are deemed sterile, safety-critical phases of flight.
Pilots often keep the flight deck lights at the lowest required setting to adjust their vision to nighttime conditions. A green laser illuminating the flight deck can temporarily blind the crew even if it doesn’t directly hit their eyes, creating a potential medical or operational emergency.
Legal Consequences of Laser Strikes
Pointing a laser at a plane is a federal crime in the United States, Europe, and most other countries. Pilots who experience a laser strike immediately report the incident to controllers. Depending on the controller’s jurisdiction, they will promptly report the laser event to the police and airport authority to apprehend the offenders.
The supervising controller is also required to report the incident to their governing agency, like the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States. Despite the legal repercussions, the number of laser strikes is on the rise. US data since 2016 shows an increase from nearly 7,400 in 2016 to 9,457 in 2022. Catching offenders can be challenging, but those identified have been fined $11,000 for a single incident and up to $30,800 for multiple violations.
The Vulnerability of General Aviation
General aviation aircraft, particularly single-engine, non-turbocharged planes, are more vulnerable to laser strikes than airliners. These aircraft cruise and maneuver almost exclusively below 10,000 feet. Flight instructors and frequent flyers know the quickest escape from a laser strike is to momentarily turn off all the plane’s exterior lights. The red and green navigation lights on the wingtips and the beacon, which must be lit at night, make the aircraft easy to spot. Extinguishing these lights makes a small plane impossible to spot against the night sky’s dark background.
While the number of laser strikes is increasing, their occurrence is still relatively uncommon. Understanding the danger they pose and the unwise decision to engage in such activity requires a modicum of common sense. The ever-increasing numbers serve as a reminder of the importance of constant vigilance in ensuring the safety of all airline operations. It is essential to continue enhancing the measures in place to prevent these incidents and impose stricter penalties to deter potential offenders.