Lasers aimed at airplane cockpits likely won’t damage pilots’ eyes, but could lead to disaster by distracting them, eye experts warn.
Reports of handheld lasers directed at aircraft are accelerating globally. Last year, more than 7,700 cases were reported to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, and the number seems to be soaring this year, according to published reports.
“Obviously, if such a distraction occurs at a critical time, such as during landing, the result could be devastating,” wrote John Marshall, from the Institute of Ophthalmology at University College London, and colleagues, in an editorial published April 20 in the British Journal of Ophthalmology.
“Fortunately, these exposures are at irradiances that are incapable of producing irreversible retinal damage even at distances of [328 feet],” they wrote.
There were more than 1,500 laser-aircraft cases over the past 12 months in the United Kingdom alone, the researchers noted. But there has only been one case of alleged eye damage in a pilot as a result of a laser pointer targeting an aircraft.
And even that case is questionable because the long distance involved would have reduced the amount of laser energy, according to a journal news release.
Consumer laser devices such as pointers, pens and key rings can only damage eyes at a maximum distance of several meters, the study authors said.
But more powerful laser pointers are available, and these devices still pose a threat as they pass through a cockpit canopy or windshield.
“These [a cockpit canopy or windshield] are usually pitted or scratched and will serve to scatter the primary beam and may result in the generation of secondary and tertiary beams,” the authors wrote.
“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,” they explained.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has more on lasers.