You are out on a mission flying below 1,000 ft one night when suddenly your eyes begin to hurt. You lose your eyesight for a few moments. You are dazed and not too sure what is happening. You have just been hit by a laser.
This has been happening all across the helicopter industry. In 2015, there were 7,703 reported laser incidents (more than 20 incidents per day). Saturday nights between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. is when you are most likely to be lased (87% of cases). The most likely locations are Los Angeles; Phoenix, Arizona, and areas of Texas and Florida.
Mid-2004 saw a marked increase in the number of laser incidents across the U.S. Most of these occurred during flight operations in terminal areas; many originated from elevated structures.
Because lasers have proven to be a significant visual performance hazard to pilots, many operational issues and human factors must be addressed to develop solutions for the aviation industry, especially with helicopters. Visual interference is the primary concern.
At a recent conference in Melbourne, Florida, SAE Aerospace’s Laser Safety Hazards Committee addressed this issue and its affect on navigable airspace. The topics addressed were operational procedures, training and protocols that flight crewmembers should follow in the event of laser exposure. This is most important during critical phases of flight.
Because lasers have become more compact, inexpensive and powerful, the number in use by the general public has increased dramatically. Green laser pointers, to which eyes are more sensitive, are now available for less than $100. They are in the hands of thousands of consumers who are unaware—as are many owners of small drones—of the dangers they pose to flight operations in navigable airspace.
Laser threats to flight operations vary from common temporary visual deficits, such as glare and flash blindness, to rarer effects like permanent eye damage (not to mention the “startle effect”). A beam above 5 watts could injure eyes in a quarter of a second.
Glare is defined as visual hindrance by too much light or a bright light and may cause discomfort for as long as the light is present.
Flash blindness is a period of visual desensitization of varying strength and durations that persists after exposure to a bright light.
The startle effect is the involuntary reaction to an unexpected event that alters mental, physical and visual activities and diverts selected attention away from the normal primary tasks of the flight crew. The startle response can be broken into four specific categories: distraction; disruption; disorientation; and incapacitation.
There is no single solution to the laser problem. Equipment like windshield film is effective but expensive. Many law enforcement aviation departments use protective eye wear, but education and training seem to be most effective.
Some experts say warnings should be placed on the lasers to inform the user of the danger of laser beams to aviation. Some lawmakers are calling for a ban on lasers.
Flight crewmembers should maintain situational awareness to assess the potential for a laser strike. Certain flight configurations present a higher risk of exposure. This would be during low altitude operations, such as landing and departure, and slow stable airspeed.
Flight crewmembers also should know how to handle a laser incident when they encounter one. During critical phases of flight, disruptive laser strikes should be treated as any other abnormal or emergency situation. Unfortunately, there are no industry-wide protocols that address this.
If lased, flight crewmembers should communicate immediately their visual status and transfer control of the aircraft to an unaffected pilot. In addition, crewmembers should not rub their eyes, should avoid looking at the light source and should report the incident per FAA AC 70-2A, “Reporting Laser Illumination of Aircraft.”
Educational materials should outline the effects of visual sensitivity and hazards to flight. Operators should develop protocols, even as part of their safety management system programs. With education and training, pilots can take actions to protect their vision and passengers.
As always—take action to fly safe.