Imagine executing a complex night approach to a major airport in highly congested airspace — lots of step-downs and a steep final segment — when suddenly an intensively bright light blasts the cockpit.

The windshield instantly turns opaquely green — but worse, you are temporarily blinded, as if a camera had been strobed too close to your face, and your eyes are burning. And the effect doesn’t immediately dissipate. You’re still descending to the ground, and you can’t see.

Now, if you are flying single-pilot, you’re in big trouble. You’ll have to break off the approach, somehow keep the wings level while initiating a climb (if you can find and manipulate the autopilot controls by touch alone), and report your situation to ATC, hoping they can get everyone else in the airspace out of the way until your vision clears. If you’re in a crewed flight deck and the other pilot’s vision isn’t so corrupted, the approach and landing can continue safely — assuming the light doesn’t strike again.

Once on the ground, the “afterimaging” will likely slowly diminish, but retinal damage could keep you grounded until the healing is complete. Longer exposure can end a career.

You are the victim of a laser light attack, and you’re not alone.

An ‘Explosion’ of Laser Targeting

Whatever the reasons — ignorant entertainment or sociopathy, perhaps — the threat to aircraft of laser targeting with small but increasingly powerful handheld pointing devices has achieved epidemic proportions in the U.S. within the last year after steady annual increases through the decade. As Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for the FAA’s Pacific Division, put it, incidents of laser targeting “just exploded in 2015,” with more than 6,624 through Nov. 27, or nearly 200 a day, with a month still to go to year-end. “The previous high for any year was just over 3,900,” he continued.

Specifically, tallies for the preceding four years were 3,894 in 2014, 3,962 in 2013, 3,482 in 2012 and 3,592 in 2011. The top five strike locations in 2015 were Los Angeles, with 243; Phoenix, 215; Houston, 185; Chicago, 162; and Las Vegas, 153. Of the reported attacks, 70% take place between 7:00 and 11:00 p.m.

According to European sources, in some cases, even airport control towers have been targeted with lasers, temporarily blinding controllers.

As of this writing, no aircraft accidents had been attributed to pilots being temporarily blinded by laser strikes, perhaps a testimony to the training and professionalism of the pilots who’ve been affected.

“We are extremely concerned about the number of laser reports we’re seeing,” Gregor told BCA, “because aiming a laser at an aircraft cockpit can pose a significant hazard to a pilot, especially during the critical phases of flight like taking off and approaching to land. It can be distracting, and we have had incidents of aborted landings after the vision of pilots was corrupted or the affected pilot had to hand over the controls to the other pilot.”

While most laser attacks have occurred at lower altitudes of a few thousand feet, the FAA has received reports from flight crews of lasings at 10,000 ft. and higher. In one incident, an airline pilot claimed a laser strike at 16,000 ft.; another, experienced by a different aircraft, allegedly occurred at FL 300.

“There have been more than a few cases where pilots have reported that they have had to get medical treatment for eye injuries [following a laser targeting],” Gregor said.

Rotary-wing aircraft are particularly vulnerable to laser painting due to the lower altitudes and speeds at which they fly, and police helicopters are often favorite targets of perpetrators.

In Europe, the problem has infected 24 different countries, and in 2014, laser “interference” strikes occurred at 57 locations, affecting 37 different air carriers, according to data accumulated by Eurocontrol, the Brussels-based agency that coordinates ATC services across the Continent. As in the U.S., laser activity there has increased progressively since 2012. Nearly 85% of the attacks have occurred during the approach phase, and, alarmingly, attacks with blue lasers, potentially much more dangerous than the more common red and green ones, made their appearance in 2014.

Further of concern, “Some reports show that the attacks were well prepared and supported with additional equipment since the aircraft was precisely targeted during the longer approach time,” a Eurocontrol document stated.

In one European attack with a green laser during a departure from a coastal resort, the captain’s side window was accurately targeted and held for a 1-min. duration. According to the pilot’s report, “the laser must surely have been tripod-mounted, since it followed the aircraft accurately at the laser range.” ATC was alerted and passed the report on to law enforcement agencies. From the description, there clearly appeared to be a malicious intent to this particular attack, as most laser strikes characteristically last only a few seconds as the aircraft passes by.

“Laser” is an acronym for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.” Invented in 1960 by Theodore H. Maiman at Hughes Laboratories, the laser differs from other light source media by emitting light “coherently.” Spatial coherence thus allows lasers to be tightly focused to a small spot for applications such as pointing and, with the more powerful variants, cutting, welding and surgery; etching and lithography; measuring and target designation; free optical communication; advertising and entertainment (e.g., rock concerts); and others including use in computer disk-drives, printers, CD and DVD players, and barcode scanners.

Further, because of high “temporal coherence,” lasers can emit light with very narrow visual spectra in specific colors, including red, green, blue and violet (think: small slices of the visual electromagnetic spectrum). They are identified by their wavelength in nanometers (nm) in a vacuum and, more commonly, by the color they emit and their power in milliwatts (mW).

Available Everywhere

In their industrial applications and in consumer appliances, lasers have demonstrated tremendous utility, but in the pointer application used irresponsibly or simply in ignorance of lasers’ effects on human vision, the devices can be highly dangerous. The latter has been facilitated by the ubiquity of handheld laser pointers emitting up to 5 mW or greater power in wavelengths covering 400 to 700 nm of the visual spectrum.

“They’re sold everywhere,” the FAA’s Gregor said, “sporting goods and hardware stores, big box outlets, electronics stores and on line. Prices have come down [$5 to $50] at the same time the power of them has gone up.”

It is noteworthy that in the U.S., the sale or possession of handheld laser pointers more powerful that 5 mW is illegal. Nevertheless, as a Food and Drug Administration safety notification states, “Although illegal and potentially dangerous, [more powerful lasers] are increasingly available on the Internet and in stores. The FDA wants to make consumers aware that they should not buy these lasers for themselves or as gifts for others.”

Just try Googling “5 mW lasers,” and up will come links to websites and YouTube postings claiming to provide instructions on how to boost the power of a handheld 5 mW laser to 100 mW. Other sites advertise the sale of high-power handheld lasers despite their illegality. (Makes one only wonder what’s available on the so-called “Dark Web.”)

Some 90% of laser pointers used to paint aircraft are in the green wavelength (500+ nm). However, as mentioned earlier, the more destructive devices project in the blue slice of the visual spectrum (400+ nm) and are becoming increasingly available on line. (One online retailer is advertising blue laser pointers of 1,000 nm power.) Adapted to the dark, the human eye is extremely sensitive to the green wavelength laser that can be as much as 35% brighter than a red laser of equal power.

Obviously, the longer the exposure time to a green laser, the greater the chance for retinal damage. Generally, due to the speed of a typical jet aircraft and the inability of most users to steady a handheld laser pointer for more than a few seconds, exposure tends to be brief, mitigating the possibility of permanent damage. But the potential combination of very-high-power lasers — say,
100 mW or greater — and stability accessories like tripods presents the possibility of an even greater threat to flight crews.

“Lasers that emit more than 5 mW output power can cause irreversible eye injury of increasing severity with increased output power,” the FDA safety notification stated. “These high-powered laser pointers can irritate or even burn the skin.”

During a critical phase of flight, like taking off or approaching to land when the aircraft is close to the ground, laser strikes that illuminate the cockpit can cause three dramatic and dangerous reactions among crewmembers:

Distraction and “startle.” The hit is unexpected and disorienting, breaking the pilot’s concentration and instrument scan. Because pilots are schooled in traffic avoidance and develop reflexes to often check for other aircraft when operating in a terminal area, “body memory” may cause a pilot to look toward a laser flash, even if he or she is aware of the risks of doing so. (That is, the sudden presence of bright light could be the landing lights of another aircraft, so the inclination is to glance toward the intrusion.)

Glare and disruption. This occurs as the intensity of the coherent laser illumination begins to interfere with the pilot’s night vision. Furthermore, the windshield and side windows will often turn opaque and assume the color of the laser as the emitted light diffuses across the glass or plexiglass.

Flash blindness. There may be no permanent injury, but a portion or all of a pilot’s visual field will be obliterated. This may be followed by “afterimages.” The effect is similar to but much more intense than the reaction to a strobe flash from a camera or the reflection of bright sunlight from a window, windshield or mirror — and it lasts much longer.

According to Skybrary, an aviation safety reference site launched by Eurocontrol in partnership with ICAO, the Flight Safety Foundation and other organizations, factors affecting laser health threats include weather, time of day, the laser’s power and color, distance and relative angle of the laser and aircraft, the speed of the aircraft and exposure time.

Best Advice: Look Away

The best advice to anyone being lased is simply to look away as quickly as possible—that is, shield your eyes, and do not attempt to locate the source of the lasing, as this can only lengthen exposure. Engage the autopilot and turn up the cockpit lighting. Then, if conditions permit, maneuver the aircraft away from the source of the laser strike, and as soon as practical, inform ATC of the incident to get it on the record and warn other aircraft in the vicinity of the threat. It’s also recommended that when checking NOTAMs during flight planning to look for any reports of prior lasings along the route of flight.

Mark Larsen, senior manager, safety and flight operations at the NBAA, offers a simple procedure for narrowing down the origin of laser attacks. He recommends that flight crews experiencing a laser incident immediately punch the transponder “ident” button so their location is captured on ATC radar tapes. “It’s easier to plot out on a topographical map if a more accurate location of the aircraft is known and then narrow down the location from which the laser originated,” he said. “Additionally, inform ATC immediately, followed by the local ground authorities as quickly as possible, even to the point of asking ATC to notify law enforcement.”

Capt. Robert Hamilton, an airline pilot who also holds the Air Line Pilots Association security council chair, has experienced five laser attacks in his career. If so struck and a pilot experiences retinal burning, “or if it feels you have sandpaper against your eyeballs,” he advises, “don’t rub your eyes, as that makes it worse. Consider what options are available to you to make yourself invisible to the person on the ground.”

Hamilton’s laser strikes occurred while he was flying aircraft varying from a piston-powered Twin Commander to Bombardier CRJ200 and CRJ700 regional jets on routes extending between Detroit and Charlotte, North Carolina, and almost always during the landing phase.

“When I first experienced it,” he told BCA, “it was still a rare event, we didn’t know the effects, and my first thought was that I might lose my eyesight. So educate yourself on the symptoms and understand that they’re not permanent, and you can still land the airplane.”

Lasing affects all classes of activity, Hamilton said, airline, general aviation and business aviation. “The first time I experienced it, I was flying single pilot and there was no one else I could turn the controls over to. In a lot of general aviation, you don’t have that resource. So we [at ALPA] want to spread the word to those pilots, as well.”

His most memorable experience occurred at Charlotte in a CRJ with 60 passengers aboard. “At 4,000 ft. and approximately 12 mi. out, I saw a flash off the left side in my peripheral vision, reflexively glanced toward it, and wound up looking right into it,” he recounted. “I was shocked by the intensity of it — it was mind blowing. The other thing was that I had retinal burning, flash blindness and afterimaging like someone had taken a flash photo of me.

“I immediately told the FO,” Hamilton continued, “and he responded that he’d been struck, too, and we started to assess our vision and divide up duties. We also notified ATC, telling them we’d been struck by a laser for 45 sec. off the west side of the aircraft with an estimate of the distance. We were lucky that we had a couple minutes before touchdown, and that the aircraft was all set up and prepared to land and the approach frequencies were pre-tuned on the radios.”

The crew’s vision eventually cleared up enough to make a safe landing, and Hamilton’s symptoms diminished as the approach progressed. After the landing, however, the FO was concerned and sought medical treatment.

“The farther you get from the source, the beam broadens and by the time it reaches an aircraft in flight, it’s widened to several feet,” Hamilton observed. “It completely disperses. In our case, it illuminated the entire flight deck. A laser can cause permanent damage, but usually at the distances we’re talking about, the symptoms are temporary.”

Hamilton, who is monitoring the laser illumination problem for ALPA in his capacity as security council head, advises flight crews and individual pilots who have been lased to immediately report the incident in Section H of FAA Form 7210-13, “Air Traffic Mandatory Occurrence Report.”

It is “imperative” to report laser incidents, Hamilton stressed, “so we can focus our resources on mitigating this threat. If there is a particular region where this is going on, we can target media resources there.”

The most effective action a person can take upon seeing someone pointing a laser at an aircraft is to report it to law enforcement or the nearest FAA facility or FBI field office. “It is not a harmless prank,” Hamilton said, “and if we can get the general public reporting this, we can then target the perpetrators.”

As an incentive, the FAA offers a $10,000 reward for information leading to arrests and convictions.

It’s a Federal Crime

Intentionally illuminating an aircraft with a laser became a federal crime under FAR Part 91.11, “Prohibition on Interference With Crewmembers,” as a provision of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Penalties include variable prison sentences and fines up to, respectively, five years and $250,000. The FAA cooperated with ALPA in getting the offense entered under Part 91 (the pilot union testified before Congress during the reauthorization deliberations) and maintains a liaison with the FBI in seeking prosecutions of offenders.

Additionally, while some cities have banned the sale and possession of laser pointers or restricted marketing to very-low-power devices, a movement is afoot in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. to ban laser pointers altogether. When the problem of intentional laser attacks became so severe at Australia’s Sydney International Airport a few years ago, the state of New South Wales outlawed sale and possession of laser pointers, classifying them as “dangerous weapons” in the same category as guns and crossbows.

“There are more people getting arrested for this, as the cops are getting more savvy at finding them,” the FAA’s Gregor said. “They’ve made a number of busts. And if a perpetrator gets busted, the number of lasings in the area goes down significantly, meaning that maybe only a few people are doing it there.”

Which begs the question of who these people are. What kind of person would attempt to impair the flight crew of a jet transport carrying human lives or blind an air traffic controller in an airport control tower?

“We’re seeing that sometimes it’s minors who do not realize what they’re doing,” Gregor answered, “but in terms of adults, it’s often a case of someone on drugs and alcohol or people who are just up to mischief. We have no indications at this time that terrorists could be involved, wanting to bring down a flight, but the FBI would be the authority on that.”

Or maybe it’s a malcontent who’s mad at the world and seeking revenge and a weird kind of immortality in the media as the world has seen in so many mass shootings.

Capt. Hamilton added that ALPA has worked “extensively” with the FBI on the issue of what motivates people to use lasers irresponsibly. “The FBI has a profile of two basic groups,” he said, “a 3.8 GPA student taking a lot of science and wanting to impress a girl — and that’s someone we can reach. But the second demographic is a loser in a basement who has an addiction issue.”