Report of 11 laser strikes on jetliners over N.J. illustrates continued threat posed by misuse of green laser pointers

By Geoff Giordano

As word came in from the Federal Aviation Administration that 11 jetliner crews reported being struck by green laser pointers over New Jersey — five of them near Newark Liberty International Airport — I was instantly reminded of some solutions to such potentially devastating acts that were discussed at our International Laser Safety Conference in March.

As evidenced by this latest occurrence — made more startling because Newark Liberty is tucked in amid a densely populated area — there is a reason ILSC 2015 featured at least a half-dozen presentations on the dangers of inappropriate laser pointer use. Laser pointers that strike the cockpit of a plane can temporarily blind a pilot or prevent the pilot from seeing past the glare.

Patrick Murphy, executive director of the International Laser Display Association and founder of the website, suggested improved consumer labeling of handheld laser devices. Such “laser safety facts” labeling would make laser hazards more evident, similar to the way nutrition labeling informs consumers.

Current labels “were designed for experts back when lasers were expensive and bulky,” Murphy said. “What does ‘Laser (Class) 2’ mean to a consumer? There’s also no warning on any current labels against aiming at aircraft. People don’t know it’s hazardous (and) they don’t know it’s illegal.” The labels he proposes not only would more clearly state the dangers of pointing handheld laser devices, but they would also facilitate convictions of offenders “if the user has been specifically warned not to aim at aircraft.”

In terms of locating offenders, Trevor Wheatley of The University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia, stressed the need for a low-cost, “always-on” method for locating the origin of these laser strikes. Wheatley detailed recent research into detection technology using cameras that could be installed on approach paths to commercial or military airfields and send reports to authorities for enforcement. “Education doesn’t seem to be working, banning doesn’t seem to be working, so we thought (in terms of) deterrence, where we increase the chances of (offenders) being caught,” Wheatley explained.

It’s worth noting that about 11 laser pointer strikes on aircraft are reported nightly across the U.S.; the FAA has reported nearly 4,000 such incidents annually in the U.S. since 2011. President Barack Obama in 2012 signed into law strict penalties for such incidents.

It’s also worth noting that these readily available green laser pointers present a further danger on the ground, particularly to youths. A study led by U.K. ophthalmologist Fahd Quhill and related by ILSC 2015 General Chair John O’Hagan of Public Health England presented cases of permanent eye damage suffered by five children in Sheffield, England. Consumer lasers given as gifts or acquired from websites, tourist destinations or modified commercial products cost some of those children more than 50 percent of their vision.

According to a 2010 article by Peter Derenski in Boeing’s Aero magazine, “The human eye sensitivity peaks in the green range and perceives green 30 times brighter than red. When comparing a green and a red laser of equal power output, the green one will appear much brighter than the red.”

At present, laser pointers with output power under 5 milliwatts are legal for sale in the U.S. But “even a ‘legal’ (in the U.S.) 5 milliwatt laser pointer can be a potential hazard if the light distracts or temporarily flashblinds a person such as a pilot,” Murphy notes on his website. “This is why you never aim a laser pointer at an aircraft or the driver of a vehicle.

LIA’s bulletin on laser pointer safety advises the following in regard to laser pointers:

  • Never shine a laser pointer at anyone. Laser pointers are designed to illustrate inanimate objects.
  • Do not allow minors to use a pointer unsupervised. Laser pointers are not toys.
  • Do not point a laser pointer at mirror-like surfaces. A reflected beam can act like a direct beam on the eye.
  • Do not purchase a laser pointer if it does not have a caution or danger sticker on it identifying its class. Report suspicious devices to the FDA.

Geoff Giordano, LIA’s director of communications, is based in northern New Jersey not far from Newark Liberty International Airport.