Lawmakers Told of Laser-Airplane Incidents

March 15, 2005
Pilots are concerned about a surge in such incidents _ there have been 112 since November, roughly one-quarter of all such cases reported in the past 15 years.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Delta Air Lines pilot Perry Winder was approaching Salt Lake City International Airport last fall when what he thought was an extremely bright camera flash blinded him.

''The intensity of the light was nearly indescribable,'' Winder said. ''It was like looking at an arc welder without goggles.''

Despite spots before his eyes and distorted depth perception, Winder landed the plane safely. He recounted the incident Tuesday during a House aviation subcommittee hearing into what has become a growing problem _ laser beams being flashed into cockpits.

Pilots are concerned about a surge in such incidents _ there have been 112 since November, roughly one-quarter of all such cases reported in the past 15 years, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

None resulted in accidents, but an FAA study has concluded that it's possible a laser beam could disorient a pilot enough to cause a crash.

The federal government has warned that al-Qaida operatives might use lasers to blind pilots. And though no links to terrorism have been found, pilots remain troubled by the growing number of incidents. To them, it makes no difference if the person holding a laser is a terrorist or prankster if the result is a pilot left unable to land a plane.

Pilots have criticized the FAA for not doing more to alert them to laser incidents. In January, the agency began requiring pilots to report laser sightings to control towers so pilots approaching those airports can take precautions.

''There is no easy answer to this problem,'' said Nicholas Sabatini, who's in charge of aviation safety for the FAA.

The agency has been working with the Defense Department to recommend the best way for pilots to deal with lasers _ whether they should look away, lower their heads or put the plane on autopilot, Sabatini said. The recommendations are expected in August.

One reason for the increase in incidents may be the easy availability of lasers, said subcommittee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla.

More than 500 million have been sold worldwide. The price of a handheld green pointer that can produce a 3-mile beam is just $50.

Col. Peter Demitry, assistant Air Force surgeon general, said it would take just three minutes on the Internet to find a laser that would disable the human eye from many miles.

That's what happened to Winder on Sept. 22. While approaching Salt Lake City, he and the captain were startled to see an intense green-and-white light in the cockpit.

''What is this, what's going on?'' Winder recalled the captain saying.

Once they figured it out, they told air traffic control.

''We didn't know what to say, except we'd been tracked by a laser,'' Winder said.

They landed the plane without incident, but while driving home that night, Winder's dull headache intensified. The next morning, he said, ''I felt like someone had pricked me in the eye with an ice pick.''

An eye doctor found his retina was swollen, leaving Winder unable to fly. The problem cleared up after two weeks of daily visits to the doctor, and Winder was allowed to fly again about 10 days later.