1500 planes targeted by lasers in the UK last year

1500 planes were targeted by laser attacks in the UK in the last year. Photo / iStock
1500 planes were targeted by laser attacks in the UK in the last year. Photo / iStock

More than 1500 planes have been targeted in laser attacks in the last year, putting passengers and crew at risk of disastrous consequences, say Britain's top eye specialists.

Attacks involving handheld lasers are on the rise in the UK, with an average of four a day in the past 12 months, according to an editorial published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology.

The country's leading eye specialists warned that there could be 'devastating' consequences if a laser is pointed at the cockpit of a plane or helicopter and the pilots are blinded.

The experts said lasers can "dazzle" pilots who "almost certainly will be distracted".

If pilots are distracted at a critical time, such as during landing or take-off, the result could be disastrous.

But there is no evidence to suggest that lasers damage pilots' eyesight, said the editorial authored by Professor John Marshall of the Institute of Ophthalmology at University College London, John O'Hagan, head of the Laser and Optical Radiation Dosimetry Group at Public Health England, and John Tyrer, professor of optical instrumentation at Loughborough University.

There has only been one case of alleged retinal damage in a pilot as a result of laser targeting of aircraft, they said, but the "suspect" case is questionable because of the distances involved.

Earlier this month, a 38-year-old man was accused of pointing a high-powered laser at planes arriving at Christchurch airport.

Last February a Virgin Atlantic flight to JFK Airport in New York was forced to return to London Heathrow Airport as a 'precautionary measure' after a laser was pointed at the cockpit.

Just nine days later a British Airways flight from Amsterdam was affected when a laser was aimed at the aircraft as it headed to Heathrow.

That same month, laser attacks gained international headlines when Pope Francis' plane was targeted on approach to Mexico City's airport.

Incidents have led to calls for all but the lowest-powered lasers to be restricted or even classified as potential weapons, like knives.

When the incidents occur the distance between the person holding the laser and the plane is usually hundreds to thousands of metres.

To "dazzle" the pilots the lasers need to penetrate the cockpit windshield, but the beam is usually scattered due to scratches on the glass, said the eye specialists.

They wrote: "In this situation, the systems are operating over a long range - typically hundreds to thousands of metres and the laser beam has to pass through the atmosphere before traversing a cockpit canopy or windshield.

"These are usually pitted or scratched and will serve to scatter the primary beam and may result in the generation of secondary and tertiary beams.

"In these situations, pilots tend to self-focus on a sudden bright light in the cockpit environment and may be dazzled, resulting in an after-image and almost certainly will be distracted.

"Obviously, if such a distraction occurs at a critical time such as during landing then the result could be devastating. Fortunately, these exposures are at irradiances that are incapable of producing irreversible retinal damage even at distances of 100m."

Former RAF and BA pilot Stephen Landells, flight safety specialist at the British Airline Pilots' Association (Balpa), said: "People need to realise that shining a laser at an aircraft endangers the passengers, the crew and people on the ground.

"Pilots understand there are some important uses for lasers but can't see any good reason why people should be allowed to carry one when there is no obvious purpose for doing so.

"Balpa has called for all but the lowest-powered lasers to be restricted and wants them recognised in law as potential weapons in the same way knives are. This would mean police would have improved powers to search people they suspect are carrying a laser, confiscate it and arrest them unless they have a good reason for having it."

Shining a laser at a plane is a criminal offence in the UK and a conviction can carry a maximum of five years in prison.

It's not just handheld lasers that pilots have to worry about these days. Remote control drones are also causes problems at airports.

Last weekend, calls for tougher rules increased after a BA flight from Geneva collided with a drone as it approached Heathrow.

Despite the collision, the plane landed safely. However, flight safety experts warned that drones pose a major threat to the safety of passengers and crew, and could cause a plane to crash.

Police have launched an investigation into the incident, but no one has been arrested.

Meanwhile, between half and one million laser pointers, pens, and key rings are thought to have been in circulation over the past decade, said the eye specialists.

In the last eight years the "nature and supply" of handheld lasers have changed dramatically.

In the past, many commercially available pointers were Class 2 laser products, which are not really strong enough to cause extreme damage because they do not have sufficient energy to pass into the eye before the targeted person blinks and turns their head away.
But many of the devices are now stronger and can cause serious damage, the experts warned.

Some are being mislabelled and should be classified as Class 3B laser products, which are not suitable for sale to the general public.

Some Class 4 devices are available online and are "capable of causing irreversible retinal damage if directed into the eye over short ranges".

Around 150 children in the UK are thought to have lost their central field vision as a result of these devices, they said.

- Daily Mail

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