Rising laser threat alarms air transport community

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Investigation into aircraft laser interference suggests a sharp rise in incidents is down to an increasing number of events, not simply greater willingness to report encounters.

Paul Bartko, strategic security operations manager at the US Federal Aviation Administration, told a Eurocontrol seminar that pilots in the USA had reported more than 1,500 incidents in the first half of 2011, with the FAA projecting 3,200 this year, against 2,837 in 2010.

Bartko said a comparison with wider laser incident reporting against that by a cargo operator with "consistent, reliable" procedure showed the rate of increase was statistically similar.

"The resulting analysis showed that reporting compliance has been about the same, and that there has been an actual increase in laser illuminations of aircraft," he said.

Eurocontrol's Safety Regulation Group is to release its annual safety report in November confirming 4,266 events reported within the 44 European Civil Aviation Conference states last year, four times the 2009 figure.

The organisation's latest bulletin on voluntary air traffic management incident reporting stated that during one event, in August 2011, the pilot was seriously injured and added that this was "the first time that we have received a report with an injury on board".

Unsurprisingly, 90% of laser incidents occur during the approach phase of flight.

Earlier this year, Rockwell Laser Industries analysed 6,903 FAA reports from 2004 to 2011, finding that the aircraft cockpit was illuminated in about 27% of cases.

Some 350 of the total number of incidents appeared to be intentional - the illumination occurring several times or tracking the flight.

Typical hand-held green laser pointers - which operate at a wavelength of 532nm and are particularly bright even at low power - are capable of distraction at a range of 3,700ft (1,100m) and causing glare at 1,200ft, the European Cockpit Association's Jo Schoenmaker told the seminar.

Flash-blindness could occur at 350ft, he said, while the aircraft would have to be 11,700ft distant before the beam is indistinguishable from background lights.

Bartko said more powerful hand-held lasers were quickly becoming affordable, stating that a 1W instrument which cost $2,500 two years ago could be bought for less than $300 this year.

Eurocontrol described the matter as a "growing menace", stating that "laser interference tactics have changed". It said pilots and air traffic controllers should receive better training and a "harmonised, multi-disciplinary and pro-active approach" is needed to counter the problem.