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Public safety spotlighted in effort to curb aircraft laser strikes

The pilot of a single-engine air taxi aircraft on a night final approach to Runway 30 at the destination airport was temporarily blinded after being hit by a flash of green light.

In this flight simulator image, a laser beam impact is depicted from the pilot's perspective. Notice how the runway glideslope indicator lights (circled) are obscured. Image courtesy of the FAA.

“I turned the aircraft northeast to avoid the light, and selected an alternate Runway 26 to land on,” the Pilatus PC–12 turboprop’s pilot said in a filing with the Aviation Safety Reporting System—just one of many documented examples of the growing problem of laser assaults on aircraft in flight.

As AOPA works with the FAA and aviation stakeholders to inform the public about the safety implications of aiming laser pointers at aircraft, the FAA is taking a data-driven approach to attacking “the dangerously high rate” of those incidents.

In a September 1 news release, the FAA announced it is conducting an analysis of laser-strike data from 2010 to 2020 using a visualization tool with its software configured to spot geographic, seasonal, and other trends.

“Pointing a laser at an aircraft can temporarily blind a pilot and not only affects the crew but endangers passengers and the communities they fly over every night,” said FAA Administrator Steve Dickson.

One perspective on the problem’s scope can be seen in data indicating that despite a drop-off in overall aviation activity in 2020 related to the coronavirus pandemic, laser strikes increased. There were 6,852 laser strikes reported to the FAA in 2020, up from 6,136 in 2019, marking the highest annual total since 2016, as AOPA reported in March.

If the prospect of harming aircraft occupants or those on the ground isn’t sufficient disincentive for a laser abuser to cease the activity, the FAA hopes sanctions ranging from fines to criminal liability on the federal, state, or local level will do the job.

Getting caught misusing the inexpensive, easily purchased devices could be quite pricey. “People who shine lasers at aircraft face FAA fines of up to $11,000 per violation and up to $30,800 for multiple laser incidents,” the FAA said; of the fines of $600,000 levied since 2016, $120,000 was assessed already in 2021.

AOPA joins the FAA in urging pilots to report laser encounters to the agency and to local law enforcement as the campaign to curb the problem continues, said Christopher Cooper, AOPA senior director of regulatory affairs.

He noted that the Government Accountability Office, responding to congressional inquiries, is monitoring progress by reviewing numerous aspects of aviation-related laser incidents including incident statistics and public education initiatives, as well as evaluating the efficacy of federal criminal and civil enforcement and the potential of technological approaches to mitigating the effects of laser assaults on aircraft.

Dickson, in a video about the dangers of laser interference with aircraft, also encouraged the public to report laser incidents involving aircraft to the FAA on its website.

“And please remember: Do pilots a favor, and lose the laser,” the FAA chief says at the video’s conclusion.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 35-year AOPA member.
Topics: Advocacy, Training and Safety, Night Flying

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