Two days later, a New York-bound Virgin Atlantic Airways flight from London’s Heathrow airport turned back after a laser strike. No one was injured, but a spokeswoman said that the flight’s First Officer went to a hospital for a precautionary check-up. The flight was grounded overnight, and its passengers were put up in hotels. Passengers proceeded on their way the next day and the airline said it was working with authorities to track the source of the laser strike.
“It’s dangerous and it compromises the safety of the pilots and the passengers they’re carrying,” said Capt. Rick Dominguez, who flies Boeing 767s for a major airline and is executive administrator for the Air Line Pilots Association, International.
Many people think of lasers as a thread of brilliant light, usually in colors of red or green. But by the time a laser’s light reaches an aircraft several thousand feet away, the beam has expanded enough to bathe the cockpit in blinding green light.
“If the pilots happen to be looking towards the laser you can have a startle effect or a dazzle effect,” Dominguez said. “You can have temporary blindness. If they’re extremely unlucky, they can actually look at the laser at the exact right time and sustain retina damage. And that of course could be catastrophic.”
Yet Dominguez, whose group represents about 52,000 pilots in Canada and the United States, said this has been happening “every week if not every day.”
That’s a lot of potential catastrophes for something that’s been a beloved plaything of office blowhards and house cats since at least the 1990s. But the laser pointer has become a potential menace as advances in technology transformed the dinky little PowerPoint companion into handheld monsters. Yet they’re still marketed as toys for Star Wars enthusiasts and others who fancy themselves swashbucklers with a light beam. As usual, the law has been trying to keep up with technology.
Let’s visit Wicked Lasers, for example. The Seoul, South Korea-based firm markets its Krypton green laser (you know, the stuff that turns Superman to jelly) as the “world’s most powerful green handheld laser.” The laser, with 900-plus milliwatts, goes for a cool $999.95, according to the firm’s website.
This video — produced by WorldScott.com “to popularize cool science and tech topics — shows a Krypton laser with a lot less juice can do igniting a bunch of bottle rockets:
To its credit, the Wicked Lasers company website carries an advisory urging people not to point them at aircraft, and it warns that doing so is a felony in the United States. But the disclaimer is tucked away in an obscure spot on the site and in such itty bitty print that you’d be forgiven for thinking that you must have been zapped in the eyes and missed it.
Meanwhile, over at BigLasers.com, you can pick up a “GX” Green Laser System with at least 500 milliwatts for $379.95 or a “GX3” with at least 100 milliwatts for $89.95.
Yet the FDA and the American Academy of Ophthalmology say that anything over 5 milliwatts is potentially dangerous to the eye, and that higher power lasers should not be available to the general public.
Emails to both companies seeking comment weren’t immediately returned.
Lots of people have raised concerns about what this new generation of powerful handheld lasers can do on the ground, too.
Rahul N. Khurana, an ophthalmologist and spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, said lasers have been used at sporting events to target players, and they’ve shown up in children’s hands as playthings, not always to happy effect. The right burst of light from a powerful laser can scorch a hole in the retina, he said.
“I think a lot of people have a romanticized view of what a laser is,” Khurana said. “They can be quite dangerous.”
The more powerful the laser, the more likely it is to be potentially harmful. Most handheld pointers for office demos are less than 5 milliwatts, and a grocery scanner is powered by a laser with 3 milliwatts. Those over 5 milliwatts are considered more hazardous and regulated more closely. The problem is that the standards and labeling used by manufacturers can vary widely, Khurana said.
The FDA, which has regulatory authority over the devices in the United States, says those ranging from 5 milliwatts to 500 milliwatts — considered Class IIIb lasers — can be immediately hazardous to the skin or the eye when targeted directly. Above 500 milliwatts, a laser — considered Class IV — can be immediately hazardous even when the light is reflected, the FDA says.
Both class IIIB and IV are supposed to be available only to certain people or organizations, such as academic institutions for research purposes, and only if the manufacturer requests and receives approval to do so, an FDA spokeswoman said. The agency also has authority to inspect the manufacturers and oversee them in other ways, and it can work with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to detain or seize illegal laser products entering the United States.
But that’s small consolation to the pilot who has ever been hit with a single laser strike while trying to maneuver a giant airship loaded with people.
The problem first surfaced a couple decades ago when rock concert laser shows accidentally splashed passing airplanes with the visual equivalent of Pink Floyd. But in the past decade or so, growing numbers of people have targeted aircraft intentionally, apparently for kicks, federal officials say.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which began tracking laser strikes in 2005, reported 3,894 in 2014, up 37 percent from 2,837 in 2010. The agency has also documented at least 35 instances since 2013 when pilots needed medical attention, federal officials said.
Shining a laser into a cockpit has been a federal crime since President Obama signed the measure into law in February 2012. The penalties include up to five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.
“The problem is of course enforcement,” Dominguez said. “How do you catch them?”
Two years ago, the FBI launched a program to shell out up to $10,000 for information that leads to the arrest of any person who shines a laser at an aircraft.
Obviously, a ban — even on something of questionable value such as a laser pointer — seems a step too far. And bans seldom work anyway. So if we must have laser pointers, perhaps it’s time someone steps in regulate them more. It’s not like playing with a pointed stick.