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How to Prepare for and Handle Laser Incidents

How to Prepare for and Handle Laser Incidents, October 2016Laser pointer-related dangers have increased for pilots, passengers and planes across the country. Here’s what pilots and FBOs should know about preparing for and handling an aircraft laser pointer incident, courtesy of

Why the increase in laser pointer incidents?

Costs of small, powerful laser devices have fallen and are readily available online while at the same time laser pointer power has increased significantly over the past five years, which means they’re capable of hitting planes at higher altitudes. This is a growing concern of the FAA and other aviation industry organizations, as the wattage of some of these slender, lightweight laser pointers is now strong enough to reach aircraft several thousand feet in the air. The increase in laser pointer incidents is also related to more diligent reporting by pilots.

Limits on laser pointer power

In an attempt to reduce laser pointer incidents with aircraft, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has limited the wattage of laser pointers sold in the U.S. to no more than 5 milliwatts, and also require warnings about radiation and other hazards.

Unfortunately, lasers available online from sellers outside the U.S. can have up to 3,000 milliwatts, according to a representative at The FDA says it does make efforts to prohibit the influx of “overpowered” laser pointers into the country by rejecting and returning or destroying shipments of laser pointers. Most shipments come from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, according to FDA records, and importers caught violating regulations can face civil penalties of up to $375,000.

Harsher sentences for aircraft laser incidents

Authorities from several agencies are trying to increase prosecutions and convictions for laser pointer suspects, including lengthier prison sentences, limits on low-cost imports, and relying on high-tech equipment to track down suspects.

Since the Justice Department’s first trial conviction involving shining a laser at an aircraft, federal penalties have been increasing. Since 2012, federal defendants in laser-strike cases have faced up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

Prosecutors now have a lower burden of proof, and only have to show that a defendant “knowingly” shined a laser pointer beam at an aircraft or its flight path.

What pilots can do to prepare

Recognize and recover. The first step in preparation is for all pilots to be aware that they can be hit at any time by a laser or bright light, such as a searchlight. This is especially important for helicopter pilots, who often fly low and slow.

Pilots may or may not get a preliminary warning, such as a visual on a beam of light coming towards them, or the cockpit could be illuminated suddenly with a flash of light with no indication of direction. Most pointers emit green, blue or red lasers.

Stay focused and don’t panic. If a laser pointer incident occurs, do not look directly at the light; look a bit away from it. Warn the other pilot if present, and be prepared to look completely away if the beam or light returns.

Block the light if possible with a hand, clipboard, or visor, and maneuver the aircraft to block the light. Next, turn up the cockpit lights as eyes are less prone to the effects of a laser if light is up. Drop or recline the cockpit seat if possible to be less in the laser’s target area. Resist the urge to rub the eyes as this can irritate the eyes and cause tearing, or even a corneal abrasion.

If a laser incident happens during landing or takeoff, determine whether it can it be flown without looking outside, such as with an automated final approach, or if a go-around is the wiser move.

Next, report the incident. Inform ATC as soon as possible and especially if you have been forced to diverge from the cleared flight path. If possible, determine some facts about the source of the light, such as the direction and nature of the light, where it came from, how long exposure lasted, what color it was, the number of beams shining, etc., as this may help apprehend the guilty pointer.

For more information on how pilots should report a laser pointer incident, read the FAA page on reporting a laser incident.

Seek eye care if necessary. Following a laser pointer incident, there may be one or more afterimages, but the likelihood of actual eye damage is extremely low, even if the light was very bright. Your eyes will most likely not be damaged permanently by the laser light. According to an FAA expert in October 2011, there have been no documented permanent eye injuries to pilots. Avoid rubbing the eyes, as it may cause more harm.

See the U.S. Air Force’s Laser Injury Guidebook for pilots and flight surgeons needing to evaluate a laser exposure.

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