Blinded by the light

A Coast Guard flight helmet emits bright green light, similar to the light from lasers, which have continually harrassed Coast Guard pilots around the country. Laser strikes on pilots have jumped from 283 in 2005 to 3,591 in 2011, a 902 percent increase. Temporarily blinding pilots with laser lights is a federal crime. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Lehmann.

A Coast Guard flight helmet emits bright green light, similar to the light from lasers, which have continually harrassed Coast Guard pilots around the country. Laser strikes on pilots have jumped from 283 in 2005 to 3,591 in 2011, a 902 percent increase. Temporarily blinding pilots with laser lights is a federal crime. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Lehmann.

Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Lehmann.

Weather conditions, crew responsiveness, incoming hazards and myriad meters, gauges and measurements. These are just a few of the things a pilot has to be wary of when flying an aircraft. A new concern is affecting Coast Guard pilots from Cape Cod, to Hawaii, from Puerto Rico to Seattle. Every air station in the Coast Guard is on the lookout for a simple beam of light.

In 2012, more Coast Guard flights were interrupted by laser strikes, than at any other point in its 223-year history. Laser pointers are being pointed skyward in record numbers; presenting a very real, very dangerous hazard to the men and women whose mission it is to save and protect those in distress. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, instances of laser strikes on aircraft have grown from 283 to 3,591 between 2005 and 2011, a 902 percent jump.

Lt. j.g. Ryan McCue, a pilot with Coast Guard Air Station Houston, has experienced this new safety threat twice.

The first time was after participating in a training exercise in Katy, Texas. McCue and his crew were on their way back to the air station when they were hit with a laser.

A high-powered laser pointer is pointed skyward in a residential, Houston neighborhood. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Lehmann.

A high-powered laser pointer is pointed skyward in a residential, Houston neighborhood. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Lehmann.

“It was one or two quick bursts, but it illuminated pretty much everything in the cockpit,” said McCue. “It definitely seemed like they were targeting the aircraft. It wasn’t an accident.”

A pilot is accountable for the safety of themselves, their crew and their aircraft. That can be a weighty responsibility for any conscientious Coast Guard crewman or any pilot, particularly because they operate in a turbulent and unpredictable environment. These concerns are compounded by the prospect of being temporarily blinded by a carelessly wielded laser pointer. This is another factor that McCue comes to terms with every time he prepares himself for another flight.

“Our normal operations take us far offshore. It’s not always the best weather out there and if there’s a cloud cover where we’re not getting a lot of moonlight, that’s inherently dangerous as is and that’s typical for us,” said McCue. “Anything that’s going to increase that danger, like being exposed to a laser light, can increase the risk exponentially and could cause the crew to come to a consensus to call it quits.”

On July 16, 2012, this worst case scenario was almost fully realized.

A Coast Guard crew from Air Station Savannah, Ga., was in the process of searching for two men whose 19-foot catamaran overturned four miles off the coast of Myrtle Beach. The aircrew was in the middle of their search when a laser strike caused enough added risk that they were forced to return to base. Fortunately, the two men, 49 and 50, found the strength to swim safely to shore.

Another laser-related instance on Sept. 12, 2012, created an incredibly dangerous environment for Coast Guard crews conducting training.

A helicopter and crew from Air Station North Bend, Ore., was hovering 75-feet above the waters of Depoe Bay, carrying out a training procedure with a Coast Guard boat crew when a laser shone through the cockpit. At such a precarious elevation and with hampered vision, the aircrew departed the scene and headed back to base. As the boat crew headed back to their station the laser followed them, continuing to harass them for much of their transit.

Aside from the dangers of distracted or blind flying, there is another immediate effect of laser strikes – crew exhaustion.

“It can be a big drain on the unit if we’re constantly being lasered,” said McCue. “When a crew gets lasered, they can’t fly again for 24 hours or until they can get in to see an eye doctor for an examination and are medically cleared. Meanwhile, another crew has to be woken up in the middle of the night to fill in. With only 17 people at our air station that can fly, it can take a serious toll on our mission effectiveness.”

The human eye has many jobs. In addition to perceiving light, it also tells the brain the difference between colors and perceives depth and distance, essential factors for pilots. It’s one of the most sensitive instruments in the cockpit of any aircraft and it’s also the one most negatively affected by laser strikes.

Temporarily blinding pilots with laser lights is a federal crime. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Lehmann.

Temporarily blinding pilots with laser lights is a federal crime. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Lehmann.

Dr. William Lipsky, a certified ophthalmologist and refractive surgeon in Houston, was taken aback by the rising trend in laser strikes.

“I was shocked,” said Lipsky. “I didn’t realize was how much of a major problem this was until I started to do some research. It’s a pretty stupid thing to do.”

Having served as a flight surgeon in the U.S. Navy for seven years and continuing to fly as a civilian, Lipsky understands the stresses and sympathizes with the pressures that come with being a pilot.

“The pilots who actually take the full brunt of it are momentarily disoriented,” said Lipsky. “The lasers are hitting when pilots eyes are dark adapted. That’s absolutely the worst time. Your retina has to recover, so you get flash blindness and that can last anywhere from a few seconds to many minutes, even overnight.”

Considering the ever-evolving environment in the air, those seconds or minutes of recovery might coincide with an event that requires the pilot’s immediate attention. Without the full use of his or her eyes, a tragic and ultimately avoidable event might occur.

But, with close to 3,700 laser strikes estimated for the year 2013, the Coast Guard isn’t the only entity being affected by laser strikes.

“If it flies, it’s been targeted,” said Lynn Lunsford, FAA spokesperson. “Hardly a night goes by in the U.S. that we don’t have three to five laser incidents, if not more, in all the major metropolitan areas. I saw several laser reports just last night. It’s something that happens every night somewhere in the country.”

It’s a threat the government takes very seriously. To dissuade the public from turning their lasers skyward, harsh civil penalties have been put in place, subjecting violators to up to five years in prison and fines of up to $11,000. With educational outreach operations underway, the FAA and Coast Guard believe that in most cases people just need to be made aware of the harm they’re doing and the precarious situations they’re creating thousands of feet above the earth.

 Laser strikes on pilots have jumped from 283 in 2005 to 3,591 in 2011, a 902 percent increase. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Lehmann.

Laser strikes on pilots have jumped from 283 in 2005 to 3,591 in 2011, a 902 percent increase. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Lehmann.

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  • DM

    Good article PO2 Lehmann. I would highly recommend you submit this to the FAA Safety Team (FAASafety.gov) and allow them to circulate your article in more communities than just the CG. You really highlighted the seriousness of laser incidents to the aircrews, potential innocent bystanders on the ground, and to citizens in distress that are depending on those aircrews for life saving assistance. Well done.

  • Dave Sullivan

    I was not aware of this and just do not understand people and the evil things that they do.

  • Qster

    The stores on the beach boardwalks should not be permitted to sell these laser pointers if this is so dangerous and more public awareness needs to take place starting in the schools of course where most kids will learn the laws.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mason.minske Mason Minske

    So wa is the punishment if someone were to get caught shining a laser at pilots?

  • Jacob Holz

    I knew it was a growing problem, but I didn’t realize it was this bad. I was of the understanding that green lasers were for rescue signalling but clearly they are counter-productive to that end on multiple levels. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d appreciate new guidance on safer long-range visual distress signalling.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Honey-Elovitz/1159603566 Honey Elovitz

    this is just a stupid thing to do. lets ban lasers rather than guns

  • chrismshannon@aol.com

    definately not a joking matter . yet I never realized those small pocket laser pointers could reach that far . laser sights used on firearms are very powerful . maybe more people can be educated through publications on facebook and other medias will prevent any further hazzards to air craft . let’s hope the terrorist aren’t over here doing such serious pranks . be safe !

  • http://www.facebook.com/richard.fischpera Richard Fischpera

    I didn’t realize that small laser pointers could reach that high without losing so power and strength.

  • David Holden

    Clearly, it’s a bad idea to point a laser at a pilot due to the potential for harm. Is there any scientifically collected evidence that shows that this is harming pilots eyes? Something has to be out there showing the number of reported incidents compared to pilots who are permanently grounded due to blindness issues.

  • Larry Carter

    Laser can cause damage to the retina. Consult with a flight surgeon to confirm this. If you still have doubt, have someone point one at you..its a no-brainer

  • Larry Carter

    Lasers of any type are not to be used for signalling when in distress. They can cause damage to the retina of your would be rescuer.

  • Larry Carter

    The punishment is five(5) years in prison and eleven thousand dollars($11,000.00) It is a felony!

  • bobby

    I would equipt all planes with guided missles, and target the laser to take them out.. this would put a stop to it immediately.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cinders0905 Elizabeth Wakefield

    It’s not always about permanent harm anyways… you could be blinding that pilot during night ops. That is a very scary thought in the middle of very dangerous operations.

  • larry

    I can understand the problem, I’m a EE, however, how does the homeland security folks get away with ROUTINELY using red and green lasers to illuminate aircraft around the nation’s capitol????????