A thousand points of light from the clueless

Boeing 767 airliner was on approach six miles out from Mineta San Jose International Airport during a night flight from Hawaii when all of sudden a brilliant flash of green light flooded the cockpit blinding the Captain.  The First Officer quickly assumed control of the aircraft and resumed the landing descent while the Captain’s eyes slowly healed from the blast of light.  After the flight landed safely, it was determined that the airplane’s cockpit was struck by a powerful laser beam.  The perpetrator was never captured or arrested.

In another incident, a San Jose Police helicopter was struck by a laser beam while flying over the San Jose-Milpitas border during a routine patrol.  The pilot and his aerial spotter tracked the source of the laser to a home.  After ground units were dispatched to the location, two 22-year-old men were caught and arrested.  During a search of one of the suspects cars, an inexpensive pen-sized laser pointer was found that was purchased from Amazon.com.

These two incidents highlight an alarming and growing problem within the aviation industry involving the inappropriate use of laser pointing devices that are aimed at aircraft cockpits.  A majority of these incidents are committed by pranksters seeking a cheap thrill. 

Guiding a heavy aircraft (such as an airliner) towards the ground to accomplish a safe landing at night requires a tremendous level of concentration.  Any sudden interruption of that concentration from a blast of light could be disastrous, especially if both pilots become visually impaired by a laser strike into the cockpit.  Prolonged exposure to a laser beam can permanently damage the retina and cause blindness.

Today’s laser pointers are powerful, cheap, and widely available.  They can project a beam anywhere from 2 to 10 miles and can cost as little as $8.99.  Directing a laser beam at an aircraft is a federal offense punishable by up to 20 years in prison with fines.  According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there were 947 commercial aircraft strikes reported in 2008, 1,489 reported in 2009, and 1,251 reported thus far in 2010.  Here are the top five major US airports where strikes are most common:

1. Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD)

2. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)

3. Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (PHX)

4. Oakland International Airport (OAK)

5. Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC)

Below are two YouTube videos related to aircraft laser strikes.  The first is a story from a San Diego news station and the second is actual laser strike footage from the cockpit of a Washington State Patrol aircraft.

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