A central element of air safety is the pilot’s unconstrained vision and situational awareness. Indeed, the alarming growth of handheld laser shining incidents on passing aircraft has sparked concern over the perilous hazards it presents. Across several countries, the problem has intensified exponentially with more than 4,500 reported cases in the UK over the past three years and 3,600 in the US for last year alone. The twelvefold increase in reported cases has even incited revisions to civil aviation laws, extending harsh penalties for culprits and enhanced monitoring near major airports. Attempts to curtail instances of pilots being targeted by handheld lasers have met with considerable success, but it gives rise to what alternative safeguards may exist for dealing with this matter.
Although there is a diverse array of laser pointers which may be sourced online at relative ease, it is those which emit a green coloured beam that have so far posed the greatest hazard. Operating at a wavelength of 532nm, green laser pointers afford twenty times greater illumination at night than conventional red lasers, with an effective range of up to 240km. Moreover, green laser pointers have the potential to impart the greatest physical harm including irreversible retinal damage with prolonged exposure.
‘For pilots, the principle safety concerns of laser dazzling are focused on the critical stages of flight, including approach, take-off and emergency manoeuvres. When shone from a considerable distance, as would be the case for overflying aircraft, the laser beam dilates to form a blanket that in some cases may reach 1.8m in diameter. Should the beam directly impact the pilot’s eye, this may render a state of temporary flash blindness with resultant afterimages similar to camera flash exposure. More prevailing however, are the effects of laser light contact with the cockpit canopy. The hazards may range from pilot disorientation, misperception of the light source as well as glare and severely impeded night vision that could prove catastrophic when compounded with other sudden variables,’ comments the CEO of AviationCV.com, Skaiste Knyzaite.
Efforts to mitigate the occurrence of laser light attacks on night flying aircraft won’t however assist during a sustained attack on an approaching or departing aircraft. In such cases, pilots could theoretically don a pair of laser-inhibiting eyewear. While this may block the interference, the concept has never been adopted by civil aviation owing to limitations in wavelength filtration when so many different laser light types exist, as well as issues surrounding the impaired vision of other more crucial light sources.
In response to this, a UK-based company, “Thin Film Solution” has recently released a prototype of eyewear that comprises a polycarbonate layer, made with an absorbent optical dye bonded to a thin glass lens with a special reflective coating inhibiting certain wavelengths. Specifically, the new eyewear can filter out a range of different laser wavelengths, affording optimal vision to the pilot during instances of laser light interruption. The eyewear is currently being trialled by the British Ministry of Defence but there is an avenue of thought surrounding its potential future use for airline pilots.
‘Whether the prototype eyewear will ever be adopted by the civil aviation industry remains unclear. Certainly, public education about the severity of hazards posed by laser light interference of pilots is vital in addition to increased penalties for offenders. Pilot training should also emphasize proper recovery from laser light exposure, in order to prevent cases of prolonged staring or otherwise unnecessary evasive action. Indeed, certain flight training organisations are able to provide pilots with simulated experiences of laser light disruption, ensuring an appropriate response is measured,’ asserts AviationCV.com CEO, Skaiste Knyzaite.