Lasers in spotlight as strikes increase

BLINDING LIGHT: Laser pointers aimed at a plane cockpit can have serious consequences.
BLINDING LIGHT: Laser pointers aimed at a plane cockpit can have serious consequences.

It's just a matter of time before a laser strike causes a tragedy, according to a pilot who says the problem is becoming ridiculous.

But he believes it is likely to be a road vehicle, not an aircraft, that comes to grief first.

Police were called to Porirua on Thursday night after a laser pointer was aimed at a plane as it prepared to land at Wellington Airport.

The Air New Zealand flight landed safely, and a police search of the area where the beam was thought to have originated failed to turn up the culprit.

It is the latest in a string of strikes that has been climbing steadily in the past few years. In 2007 the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) recorded 21 strikes on aircraft; by last year that number had swelled to 102, and already sits at 42 this year.

Air New Zealand pilot Captain Bob Henderson said the problem was becoming ridiculous. "One weekend someone's going to have the really bright idea of pointing a laser at the windscreen of a car, bus or truck and they're going to blind the driver."

Although laser strikes were unlikely to cause a commercial plane to crash, he said the problem was preventing pilots from carrying out their duty of care.

In March, two young men were sentenced to community service after shining a laser at a police helicopter in Auckland last year.

Last month, two pilots were temporarily blinded by green lasers shone into their cockpit at Wellington Airport.

In September, a 19-year-old man who shone a laser at three commercial aircraft and a police helicopter landing at Auckland Airport was sentenced to 4 months' home detention.

According to CAA reports, a schoolboy has also been caught pointing a laser from the window of a plane at another plane taxiing along Wellington Airport's runway. The boy was apprehended by two police officers sitting behind him. Earlier this month Associate Health Minister Jo Goodhew announced that hand-held lasers strong enough to be a hazard to aircraft would be subject to tougher import, sale and supply controls under health and Customs legislation.

Powerful hand-held laser pointers are cheap, easy to obtain, and at present can be sold or supplied with only sparse risk and safety information. The new measures, expected to come into force by next year, will restrict laser use to authorised users with a legitimate purpose - such as astronomers, researchers and the Defence Force.

Meanwhile, National MP Cam Calder has introduced a member's bill to boost police powers against laser users. The Summary Offences (Possession of Hand-held Lasers) Amendment Bill would make it a crime to possess a hand-held laser in a public place without reasonable excuse.

Air New Zealand chief flight operations and safety officer David Morgan said the airline welcomed the new measures.

"Safety is paramount for Air New Zealand. Laser pointing is dangerous and has the potential to distract pilots, temporarily blinding them. High-powered laser pointers have also been linked to eye injuries, and in some cases blindness."

Introducing the regulations would bring New Zealand in line with Australian legislation and help "mitigate the risk the devices pose to travelling passengers and pilots when placed in the wrong hands", Mr Morgan said.



A high-powered laser pointed directly at the eye could burn a hole in the back of the retina, which in the worst case could lead to permanent blindness, laser safety expert Martin Gledhill says.

Although is was unlikely a commercial pilot could be blinded, he said refracted light bouncing around the cockpit could cause dazzling "flash blindness" and make landing tricky.

Air New Zealand pilot Bob Henderson said lasers trained on the eye created a visual blind spot on the retina that could linger as an after-image and affect night vision for up to 10 minutes.

Civil Aviation Authority spokesman Mike Richards said laser strikes could cause "distraction, disorientation and discomfort for pilots, resulting in a potentially hazardous situation during critical phases of flight such as takeoff or landing".

The Dominion Post