One of the biggest threats facing pilot safety can come from a cheap Chinese device sold freely in stores around the world. That device is the laser pen, and a growing number of people are using them to point in the direction of aircraft, often in the vital stage of take-off or landing.
The devices have a number of legitimate uses, but when used irresponsibly they could lead to a crash and a number of fatalities. The beams have numerous hazardous effects on aircrew, including distraction, glare, afterimage, flash blindness, and, in extreme circumstances, persistent or permanent visual impairment.
A growing risk
According to a recent study in the US, over a five-year period there were 17,663 laser encounters, which is more than seven times the number of reports analysed in the earlier FAA study. Over that five-year span, on any given day in the United States, there is a 99.6% chance that at least one aircraft will have a potentially dangerous encounter with a laser beam.
In the UK, the latest available figures from the CAA figures show there were 1,439 laser attacks on aircraft in the UK last year – equivalent to almost four a day.
Heathrow airport was the most common location with 121 incidents, followed by Birmingham airport (94) and Manchester airport (93).
September was the worst month for attacks with 91, narrowly ahead of August when there were 88.
The US report showed there were an average of 9.67 laser encounters per day. The most strikes in one day was 35.
Leading opthalmologists have warned that pilots face the risk of blindness if viewing a direct beam as it could burn into the retina.
Dr Steve Schallhorn, who is chief medical director at Optical Express and a former US Navy pilot, said there needed to be more education about the irreversible eye injuries that can be caused by laser pens.
“Laser attacks on pilots are exploding and could lead to a terrible tragedy if people continue to target aircraft,” Dr Schallhorn said.
Innovation on show
The defence industry has been working on solutions and now one company, ST Laserstrike, is bringing a new product to the commercial market.
The special lenses in what look like a typical pair of Aviator sunglasses can cut out harmful red, blue and green beams while still enabling the pilot to see instrument lights with those colours. The glasses were being shown at the EBACE event in Geneva last week.
They work at night fighting the laser attacks, and in the day as standard sunglasses.
Meanwhile regulators are calling for tougher action against those who wield the pen against aircraft.
We caught up with ST Laserstrike to find out more about their solution.