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Learn how to recognize and recover from a laser illumination
If you are a pilot, you may not be able to reduce the number of laser incidents -- but if an incident does occur, you can reduce the severity. Laser events are very manageable, if you know what to do.
At a very minimum, you should read about the laser incident problem. Some useful resources are listed at the bottom of this page. Information in these documents and videos will help you successfully recognize and recover from a laser or bright light flash.
For demonstrations to yourself and other pilots, you can safely simulate a laser strike using an inexpensive, readily available LED flashlight. You might want to consider purchasing such a flashlight to see for yourself what a laser illumination is like.
An illumination could happen at anytime
Be aware that you could be hit at anytime during dusk, night or dawn, by a laser or a bright light (e.g. searchlight):
- You may have a preliminary indication, such as seeing a beam coming towards you. (See these videos, which show what a beam looks like from the air.)
- Or you may be illuminated by a sudden, windscreen-filling flash with no indication of direction.
Do not panic
Understand that this is a very controllable situation, and that your eyes will almost certainly not be damaged (retinal injury) by the laser light. According to an FAA expert in October 2011, there have been no documented permanent eye injuries to pilots. An April 2012 report from the U.K. CAA also stated that “there have been no documented cases anywhere in the UK where civil aircrew have suffered permanent eye damage as a result of a [laser] attack.”
- “Fly the plane” first. With two pilots, the one who was not exposed should look at the instruments -- not out the window. If the plane is in a critical flight phase such as landing or takeoff, determine whether it can it be flown without looking outside (example: on an automated final approach). Determine whether a go-around might be prudent.
- Do not look directly towards the light; instead, look a bit away from it. Be prepared to look completely away and warn the other pilot if the beam or light returns.
- Block the light if possible with a clipboard, visor or your hand. You can sometimes maneuver the aircraft to block the light.
- Turn up the cockpit lights. Light-adapted eyes are less prone to the effects of a laser.
- Resist the urge to rub your eyes. This can irritate the eyes and cause tearing, or a corneal abrasion.
Regarding flight procedures during a laser illumination:
- Inform ATC as soon as possible and in particular if a decision has been made to diverge from the cleared flight path.
- Consider re-engaging the autopilot (if disengaged), or handing control of the aircraft to the other pilot (if there is another pilot in the cockpit and he/she is less affected by the attack).
• If the aircraft is on approach, consider executing a missed approach.
Checklist if illuminated during landing
The following checklist is from SAE G10T publication ARP5598, “Unauthorized Laser Illuminations: Pilot Operational Procedures”, available for sale from SAE International.
- Execute missed approach procedures
- AUTOPILOT on.
- Background lights maximum on PM pilot’s discretion.
- COMMUNICATE with the other crewmember to determine visual condition and status of the aircraft.
- If PF is illuminated, TRANSFER control of aircraft to PM.
- CONTACT ATC to report laser incident and request priority handling if necessary.
- ENGAGE autopilot and coupler for approach and manual landing.
- If aircraft has autoland capability, crew may elect to autoland.
- ALLOW eyes to regain visual function and check aircraft instruments for any deviations from assigned flight profile when visual function returns.
- Continue to CROSS CHECK and verify instrument indications for visual legibility during approach and landing.
- DISENGAGE autopilot and coupler as per company policy.
If conditions permit – the light is gone or is low enough in intensity – one pilot may want to cautiously ascertain the direction and nature of the light: Where did it come from? How long did the exposure last? What color was it? Was there more than one beam? This may help in finding the perpetrator.
For more information on how pilots should report the incident, see the page To report an incident. This has information for U.S. reporting and for selected other countries.
If the laser event occurs in the vicinity of an FAA ATC terminal facility, ATC will broadcast on appropriate control frequencies a general caution about reported incidents of unauthorized laser illumination of aircraft. These cautions will be broadcast every 5 minutes for 20 minutes (four times) after each reported event. Cautionary broadcasts will include the following:
- Phrase “UNAUTHORIZED LASER ILLUMINATION EVENT.”
• General positional information (e.g., location and altitude).
ATC facilities will also notify flights operating in the immediate area of reported incidents of unauthorized laser illumination of aircraft using automatic terminal information service systems (ATIS) for at least 1 hour following the report of the event. These ATIS broadcasts will include the following:
- Phrase “UNAUTHORIZED LASER ILLUMINATION EVENT.”
• Event time in UTC, general positional information (e.g., location and altitude).
- General description of event (e.g., color, intensity, and direction of beam).
Seek qualified eye care if necessary
The likelihood of actual eye damage is extremely low, even if the light was very bright. There may be one or more afterimages, but these do not mean there is permanent damage to the retina. As stated above, avoid rubbing the eyes, as it may cause more harm (e.g., corneal abrasions) than a flash exposure.
The U.K.’s CAA has issued an online self-assessment tool to help pilots determine if there may be adverse eye effects. If you are concerned, you can be checked by a qualified eye doctor with experience in retinal examinations. If you suspect serious damage (which is extremely unlikely), you should directly contact FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute in Oklahoma City.
Laser protective eyewear
Pilots may want to consider protective eyewear. This is not a solution -- we are not suggesting that pilots should be required to routinely wear laser safety glasses. However, pilots concerned about flying when lasers have been reported or suspected may want aviation-specific anti-laser glasses available in the cockpit. For example, LAPD helicopter pilots use laser eyewear during searches for persons who have illuminated other aircraft.
More information, including a suggestion of what glasses to consider, is on the Protective eyewear for pilots page.
Useful resources for more information
- On April 13 2012, the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority released Safety Notice SN-2012/005, entitled “Laser Attacks”. It includes information for pilots on what to do before, during and after a laser illumination.
- In January 2011, FAA issued a 4-page PDF brochure, “Laser Hazards in Navigable Airspace”, which is intended for media, pilots and others. It describes the hazards of laser light, FAA flight zones, FAA regulations and publications, and what pilots can do if they experience an incident.
- A similar, earlier FAA perspective is in the article “Blinded by the Light: A Look at Cockpit Laser Illumination Events” in the July/August 2009 issue of FAA Aviation News. The link is to an online PDF of the entire magazine; scroll to magazine page 28 to find the article.
- View the FAA/Air Force video. The shorter, 10-minute version is sufficient to give a good overview of the problem and how to handle an incident, although you are welcome to see the entire 21-minute original video if you want.
- Night Flight Concepts offers a Laser Eye Protection Program training course. This is an online computer-based course “to teach aircrew members the capabilities, limitations and preventative measures required to respond to a laser strike.” The cost is $125; the course takes about an hour and has a test at the end.
- In April 2013, the L.A. Sheriff’s Department released a video entitled “Laser Strike”. They use this for training, and it may be useful to other law enforcement and aviators.
- As noted above, for demonstrations to yourself and other pilots, you can safely simulate a laser strike using an inexpensive, readily available LED flashlight.
Additional links, many from aviation-related sources, are on the Links page.