Blinded by the Light
A Look at Cockpit Laser Illumination Events
By Tom Hoffmann, FAA Safety Briefing Magazine Managing Editor
On what seems like a picture-perfect night flight in smooth-as-glass conditions, you marvel at the endless patchwork of tiny yellow, white, and red lights sparkling like jewels against the black velvet darkness. You treasure this moment of freedom, flying miles above all the traffic, noise, and chaos; your only companions the familiar drone of your 172’s engine and the warm glow of your instrument panel. Reducing power on final approach at your home airport, you prepare to call an end to this memorable flight.
Then, it happens. A blinding green light envelops the cockpit and startles you — as if someone sounded an air horn inches from your ear. What had been a smooth controlled approach becomes an erratic, over-controlled struggle to maintain airspeed and glide path. As your eyesight returns to normal, it dawns on you — you’ve just experienced a laser strike.
Aircraft laser incidents have become an all-too-common occurrence in recent years. In 2022 and 2021, there were 9,457 and 9,723 reported laser events respectively across the United States, nearly tripling the annual numbers from a decade ago. Let’s take a closer look at what’s being done to address this problem, as well as review some actions you, as a pilot, can take to keep yourself — and your fellow aviators — safe following a laser incident.
The word “laser” actually contains its own definition. It is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Simply stated, a laser is an optical device that produces a highly concentrated beam of single-color light. A special optical amplification process known as stimulated emission transforms energy inside the laser into synchronized, narrow light waves within a low-divergence beam. In contrast, an average flashlight or light bulb emits multiple-wavelength light in several directions and becomes greatly diluted.
We often overlook the value laser technology can have in everyday life. It plays a vital role in your ability to do many routine tasks, such as secure your home from intruders, improve your eyesight, check out groceries at the supermarket, or even remedy that regrettable dolphin tattoo decision you made several years ago. Despite their various practical and scientific uses, lasers can be dangerous and improper use can pose a serious threat to aviation safety.
If you encounter a laser illumination event during flight, remember to Aviate, Navigate and Communicate.
Launch of the Lasers
Lasers first gained attention in the aviation community in the 1990s, when several pilots reported incidents of illumination near public amusement events or attractions. This prompted FAA to provide greater support for outdoor laser operations in the National Airspace System (NAS) by establishing flight-safe exposure limits for lasers near airports. These standards successfully decreased the number of reported laser illumination events and ensured pilots would be protected from lasers that could cause ocular damage.
To validate the effectiveness of these new guidelines, the FAA began closer monitoring of laser illumination events and saw a decline for several more years. Then, something peculiar happened. In late 2004, an unusual spike in incidents occurred that was linked to a new source of laser danger — handheld laser pointers. The correlation was clear as it was about this same time when green laser pointers, generally used by presenters or by astronomers to point out celestial objects, became inexpensive and widely available. Also of concern was the color of these pointers, as green lasers produce a beam near the eye’s peak sensitivity, which means that they are perceived as being many times brighter than a similarly powered red laser.
Although the power produced in most laser pointers is usually not enough to cause lasting physical eye damage, there are definite operational issues caused by distraction or the resulting visual effects of a laser, especially during a critical phase of flight.
Operational Concerns Put to the Test
To validate these operational concerns, the FAA performed studies at its test facility in Oklahoma City. The studies exposed several pilot test subjects to varying intensities of laser illumination while performing approach, landing, and takeoff maneuvers in a full-motion aircraft simulator. While illuminations at a lower intensity were regarded as more or less a nuisance, those at a higher intensity resulted in many visual and operational problems for the pilots.
These effects during laser events have also been documented in pilot reports, where aviators have described losing sight of the runway, flaring too early, or executing a missed approach. These events can be much more challenging for a general aviation pilot who often flies slower, lower, and has no other pilot to take the controls. Even more at risk are helicopter crews, due to their close ground proximity and a helicopter’s tendency to present a more stationary target by hovering.
Three visual effects that could impact pilot operations during a laser illumination include:
- Flash blindness — A temporary visual interference effect that persists after being “lased,” similar to a bright camera flash.
- Afterimage — A distracting shadow image left in the visual field after exposure to a bright light that can last for several minutes.
- Glare — An object in a person’s field of vision being obscured due to a bright light source near the same line of sight.
Laser Strikes on the Rise
As mentioned earlier, aviation laser strike numbers have steadily increased over the years, with a spike in the most recent two years. This uptick has the FAA’s attention, as well as that of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which issued a report on the matter in August 2022. Among the report’s recommendations were to:
- Have better reporting
- Reinstate a multi-agency working group
- Determine the best information that helps lead to finding and prosecuting offenders
The FAA concurs with these recommendations and is taking steps to address the issues. The agency is looking at ways to work with other organizations to share and report a more comprehensive set of laser strike data and to develop a tool to collect and share information with law enforcement later this year. The FAA is also planning to work with FBI and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) counterparts to increase educating the public on laser safety.
The FAA has several other efforts already underway to help identify and reduce laser strikes. One is the creation of new visualization tool that analyzes laser strike data. Using the Tableau software platform (see the chart below), the tool identifies trends that include geographic area, per capita data, time of day and year.
The FAA has also developed educational materials like pilot safety brochures and videos and more recently adopted a “Lose the Laser” safety campaign to help raise public awareness of the issue.
The advent of laser eye protection (LEP) technology is another area that is proving useful to pilot safety. The drawback is that many LEP eyewear designs can degrade a pilots’ critical color recognition abilities in the cockpit. Further research by the agency with newer products is currently underway; these could hold the key to solving the color recognition issue and help mitigate the consequences of laser strikes. Stay tuned.
The Laser Arm of the Law
The agency has also stepped up outreach and training events for local law enforcement officers (LEOs). This has translated into more prosecutions. Two recent examples involving laser incidents include a Philadelphia man who was sentenced to one year in prison and three years of supervised release, while another person in Mississippi faces up to five years in prison and a $250k fine.
Ultimately the “intel” LEOs rely on for finding and prosecuting these wrongdoers comes from the information gathered from pilots after a laser strike. Quick and accurate reporting is often the best thing to help. Advisory Circular 70–2B, Reporting of Laser Illumination of Aircraft, provides guidance on the best ways to report a laser strike.
Pilots struck by a laser should report the event to the appropriate ATC controlling facility as soon as possible. Reports should include event position (e.g., latitude/longitude and/or fixed radial distance from a navaid or airport), altitude, color of laser beam(s), originating direction, and whether the strike interrupted or interfered with your flight duties.
If you’re flying in uncontrolled airspace, the FAA requests that you broadcast a laser illumination caution message on an appropriate frequency, such as UNICOM or VHF/UHF guard frequencies 121.5/243. This warning should include the following:
- Phraseology “UNAUTHORIZED LASER ILLUMINATION EVENT”
- Event time in UTC, general positional information (e.g., location and altitude); and
- General description of event (e.g., color, intensity, and direction of beam).
Once you reach your destination, please report a laser event via the FAA Laser Beam Exposure Questionnaire. The site also contains a PDF version of the report that can be emailed to LaserReports@faa.gov or faxed to (202) 267–5289.
Please note that reporting a laser illumination to ATC is by far the best way for authorities to more quickly track down and apprehend the offender. A side benefit is that it also triggers a general caution warning broadcast on all appropriate frequencies every five minutes for 20 minutes and is included in ATIS broadcasts for one hour after the report. Here is an example of a laser-related ATIS report:
UNAUTHORIZED LASER ILLUMINATION EVENT, AT 0100z, 8 MILE FINAL RUNWAY 18R AT 3,000 FEET, GREEN LASER FROM THE SOUTHWEST.
Pointers — What if I Get “Lased?”
If you encounter a laser illumination event during flight, here are a few pointers:
- ANC — Remember to Aviate, Navigate, and Communicate in that order.
- Alert a crewmember — If you’re flying with another pilot, advise him or her of the laser and determine if the other pilot is safe to assume control of the aircraft.
- Interrupt the light — Use a clipboard, visor, or your hand to block the light if possible. Sometimes you can maneuver and use the aircraft to block the light.
- Turn up the cockpit lights — Light-adapted eyes are less prone to the effects of a laser.
- Advise ATC or broadcast on the appropriate frequency — Include your aircraft call sign and type; altitude and heading; the color, direction, and location of the laser; the length of exposure; and any injuries sustained. After landing, complete a laser incident report online.
- Resist the urge to rub your eyes — This can irritate the eyes more and cause tearing or a corneal abrasion.
- If you are concerned or if you feel you have suffered any eye damage, have your eyes examined.
There are many exciting prospects for laser technology, including deep-space data communications and computers that can process at the speed of light. Despite the dangers of “rogue” unauthorized users, we shouldn’t lose sight of the many useful applications of laser technology, particularly in the aviation industry. In fact, lasers are already being successfully used to warn aircraft that violate the DC Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) and could be used as a bird-strike deterrent, as well as to prevent runway incursions.
The key to a safe flying environment is to keep both pilots and laser operators informed and educated. Operators need to understand the dangers caused by careless actions with a laser. And, for pilots, knowing how to recognize, react, and report a laser event is the best way to keep the skies safe now and in the future.
- Advisory Circular 70–2B, Reporting of Laser Illumination of Aircraft
- Office of Aerospace Medicine — Laser Illumination of Flight Crew Personnel by Month, Day of Week, and Time of Day for a 5-year Period (2004–2008) — April 2011 (PDF download)
- FAA’s Laser Safety podcast (audio file)
- To learn more about safe practices for pilots and laser pointer users, go to laserpointersafety.com.
Breaking the Law …
18 U.S.C. section 39A states: Whoever knowingly aims the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, or at the flight path of such an aircraft, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.
How Do I Report a Laser Incident?
In the air: Report on assigned (or appropriate) frequency
On the ground: Scan the QR code below for online reporting. Refer to AC 70–2B. Fax the form to (202) 267–5289 or email your information to LaserReports@faa.gov.
Items to report:
√ Name and phone number
√ Date and time
√ Call sign, tail number, and type
√ Aircraft altitude and heading
√ Laser color
√ Direction and distance of laser
√ Cockpit illuminated?
√ Interference with crewmember duties? (14 CFR 91.11)
Tom Hoffmann is the managing editor of FAA Aviation News. He is a commercial pilot and holds an Airframe and Powerplant certificate.