In December 2004 and in early 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) alerted the public about a number of incidents of lasers (Light Amplification by Simulated Emission of Radiation) being aimed at aircraft as reported by flight crews. According to the FAA and various media reports, the targeted aircraft include both commercial and general aviation fixed-wing, and rotorcraft of all sizes and speeds.
In fall 2004, federal security officials alerted the aviation community that terrorists might attempt to use readily available laser light devices to temporarily blind pilots, resulting in the possibility that control of the aircraft might be lost.
The media continues to focus on the potential safety impact of lasers when they are used to illuminate aircraft. Arguments exist on both sides of the issue, some saying that lasers pose no safety threat while others claim that any laser larger than the typical key chain emitter may pose a threat to the safety of the pilot and passengers of the aircraft.
On January 11, 2005, the FAA issued a four-page advisory circular outlining the actions that will be taken if pilots report they have been illuminated. The detailed instructions include a recommendation to contact air traffic control (ATC) or broadcast the event over unicom to alert other pilots and then if practicable avoid the area where the illumination occurred. The FAA also requests that pilots note the time, altitude, color of the laser, originating direction and position, and any other information that may be helpful, including the Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates if they have the on-board capabilities to do so. A laser beam exposure questionnaire is also attached to the AC, which the FAA requests that pilots complete and submit via fax to the FAA's Washington Operations Control Center.
The use of any high-power light beam, whether it is a laser or a spot light, could create safety of flight issues for aircraft operations. With the lower cost of light transmitters, appropriate safeguards should be in place to ensure that aircraft do not become targets of unnecessary and unlawful light emitting activities.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the production and use of lasers. Additionally, since 1995 the FAA has monitored and required commercial users of outdoor lasers to receive authorization from the FAA so as to ensure adequate protection for aircraft.
Scientific studies show that when directed into the human eye, laser lights create temporary blindness that may affect the pilots' ability to operate the aircraft safely. A 2003 study conducted by the FAA's Office of Aerospace Medicine using instrument-rated pilots and a Boeing 727 simulator concluded that small, low-power lasers do not likely have an adverse affect on pilots' ability to retain control of an aircraft during the maneuvering of the aircraft on takeoff, departure, approach, and landing. However, the study recognized that because the test pilots all had received advanced training on instruments, they were more easily able to cope with any visual problems generated from the laser. The study also acknowledged that lasers "might have more of an impact on less experienced, or visually susceptible pilots."
AOPA is unaware of scientific studies that evaluate the effects of lasers on general aviation pilots trained to operate based on visual cues and basic training on instrument operations.
Proponents who advocate for the use of lasers as a search and rescue device believe that lasers are a safe means of alerting aircraft that there are people in distress and a need for immediate assistance is requested.
AOPA has also learned that the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is evaluating the use of laser beam technology to visually alert to aircraft that violate the security-restricted airspace around Washington, D.C. Very few details have emerged about this research project; however, AOPA is concerned about the safety of general aviation. According to NORAD officials, the ground-based laser system uses safety-tested low-level beams of alternating green and red laser lights to alert pilots that they are flying without approval in designated airspace. This system would be used when the aircraft in question cannot be contacted on VHF voice radio by ATC. According to the FAA, a preliminary test of the system showed that the laser illumination is "eye safe." However, the FAA contends, and AOPA agrees, that a number of important steps must be taken before the system is fielded. A special advisory must be developed to alert pilots of the new system, operational procedures must be developed, and a broad education and outreach effort must be made to the pilot community. The Department of Transportation (DOT) is aware of this research and the need to prevent potential safety hazards to pilots.
Safety of the nation's pilots should be the highest priority for government agencies charged with regulating the use of lasers. While AOPA does not believe that lasers pose a significant safety issue that warrants the use of temporary or permanent airspace restrictions, general aviation pilots should be aware that higher power lasers are more readily available, and at least one study shows that they may cause temporary vision changes from lasers. Because general aviation aircraft often fly at relatively low altitudes, today's strongest lasers may pose a threat to the safety of the flight in all flight regimes.