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US: WestJet pilot is said to have eyes "burned" at 10,000 feet

A WestJet passenger plane about 25 miles from landing at Orlando International Airport was illuminated by a green laser on May 18 2019. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the aircraft was descending through 10,000 feet at the time of the incident. FAA also reported that the pilot's eyes were burned.

The flight continued to Orlando's airport and landed about 15 minutes after the incident.

At FAA's request, the Volusia County Sheriff's Office was asked to investigate a possible location for the laser. Deputies found a house with a bright green porch light, but the residents said they did not own a laser pointer.

The pilot was referred for medical examination, as per WestJet's standard operating procedure.

WestJet released a statement: "Laser incidents pose a serious concern to crew and aircraft safety and have serious repercussions for those found to be shining lasers in a manner that could result in injury or damage. These incidents are reported immediately to local authorities for further investigation. Pilots are extremely focused during all phases of flight, but especially during take-off and landing, when most laser incidents occur. When any sort of light enters the flight deck, pilots are trained to look away and maintain focus but they must also maintain vigilant with respect to their surroundings and monitor the apron prior to landing. Pilots take on an incredible responsibility controlling an aircraft, and it is WestJet’s duty to ensure a safe work environment for them to operate in. Any pilot who reports being struck by a laser is required for safety and health reasons to have an ophthalmology evaluation."

From the Aviation Voice, WESH.com, News965.com, and ClickOrlando.com

COMMENTARY FROM LASERPOINTERSAFETY.COM

It is almost a certainty that the pilot's eyes were not burned by the laser exposure. A laser beam that traveled 10,000 feet would have to be extraordinarily powerful to even potentially cause an eye injury.

Laser beams spread out with distance. At 10,000 feet a laser beam would expand to be at least three feet wide. Only a fraction of the beam power would go through the pupil of the pilot's eye. (In fact, of the original laser irradiance, only 0.003 percent would go through the pilot's pupil.)

What power would it take? A 190 watt laser with a very narrow 1 milliradian beam has a Nominal Ocular Hazard Distance of about 10,000 feet. This means the laser light is generally considered safe after the NOHD distance. This does not mean that just inside the NOHD there would be an injury. Laser safety standards have a built in "safety factor" or "reduction factor."

To have a 50/50 chance of causing the smallest medically detectable eye injury at a distance of 10,000 feet, the laser would have to be about 1,900 watts at a 1 mrad divergence.

By comparison, the most powerful handheld lasers currently available are in the 3 watt range with claimed wattage (not confirmed) up to about 6 watts. Most laser pointers used in incidents are less than 1 watt.

It may be that someone aimed a non-handheld, plug-in-the-wall laser beam at the pilot. Even here, 190 to 1,900 watts is fairly powerful. There are some industrial and research lasers much more powerful than this, but to the best of our knowledge the only non-handheld lasers involved in aircraft lasings have been from laser light shows. For such shows, 60 to 80 watts is about the most powerful from a single laser source. There were no reported outdoor laser light shows the night of the WestJet incident.

Some news articles gave an impression that, because the pilot's eyes were burned, he or she went for a medical examination. But as explained above, this is routine policy. WestJet requires "any pilot who reports being struck by a laser … to have an ophthalmology evaluation."

It could be that the pilot had an eye effect, such as irritation from the bright flash of light, or that the pilot rubbed his or her eyes so hard that they scratched their cornea — a painful condition which heals.

For more information

More information about laser eye effects on pilots is here. A quick summary is that 1) there have been no proven or documented eye injuries to pilots according to U.S. FAA, U.K. CAA and Transport Canada, and 2) top laser safety experts have written that "There is no evidence to suggest that lasers pointed at airplane cockpits damage pilots’ eyesight."

A table listing eye effects and incidents reported to U.S. FAA in past years is on the laser/aircraft incident statistics page.