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Canada: Number of pilots blinded by laser pointers increases

The number of pilots' complaints of being blinded in the cockpit by laser pointers has dramatically risen over the last two years.

As of October 17 this year, Transport Canada had received 46 reports of incidents involving "directed bright lights" being shone at a civilian airplane's cockpit from the ground, says Jean Riverin, a spokesman for the national regulator. This compares with 21 reports for all of 2007, and only three each for 2006 and 2005. When Transport Canada receives a complaint, adds Riverin, "we notify the RCMP or local police, who coordinates the investigation."

It is an offense under section 74.1 of the federal Aeronautics Act to "engage in any behaviour that endangers the safety or security of an aircraft in flight." A violation of the act can lead to a maximum penalty of $100,000 or five years imprisonment following a conviction, or to $25,000 or 18 months imprisonment following a summary conviction.
Despite the 73 incidents recorded since 2005, only one person has been convicted under the Aeronautics Act. On October 15, 2007 in Calgary, David Mackow shone a green laser pointer at both a landing Air Canada Jazz Dash 8 plane and the Calgary Police Service helicopter that was dispatched to investigate. The 29-year-old forklift operator pleaded guilty and received a $1,000 fine.

These incidents constitute "a major safety concern to pilots," says Captain Barry Wiszniowski, chair of the technical and safety division for the Air Canada Pilots Association. "You have two highly-skilled individuals performing their most critical tasks, close to the ground, and this is where the laser events are happening," he says.

Indeed, an Aeronautical Informational Circular from Transport Canada notes that "cockpit workload increases below 10,000 [feet] above ground level," the effective range of the more powerful laser pointers. At this height, pilots and co-pilots may be dealing with approach and landing tasks, as well as navigating the "dense traffic areas" near airports, the circular says.

When a directed bright light is shone into a cockpit, the effects on the flight crew can range from startle and glare to flashblindness and even a persistent afterimage. All of these can be "very distracting," Wiszniowski notes. "The safety of the passengers [is] riding on the safe operation of the guys in the front. So, if we're distracted, it does elevate the risk of the entire operation."

Additionally, the laser beam can cause temporary or permanent damage to pilots' eyes, although the Transport Canada information calls this a "remote possibility because the laser power required to cause eye injury to a pilot in flight greatly exceeds that of lasers in common use today."

Working group developing standard procedures

While he could not speculate on why the number of offences has increased so rapidly, Wiszniowski points out that a working group composed of the major carriers, pilots associations, Transport Canada and NAV CANADA is developing standard operating procedures for pilots faced with directed bright lights. These will include notification of air traffic control so that "other pilots can avoid that area where the event happened," he says. Wiszniowski adds that "there's going to have to be an education system for the pilots" once the procedures are drawn up.

Currently, the Transport Canada circular provides pilots with a seven-step laser incident procedure, as well as tips for preventing and mitigating illumination effects (such as turning on thunderstorm lights and engaging the autopilot).

From Canadian OH&S News (occupational health and safety)