The Problem with Laser Pointers

It sounds like a simple and goofy prank.  Shine your laser pointer into the sky and see if you can “hit” an airplane.  Your chances are probably slim, but if you live near an airport you may just succeed.  And what the heck, huh?  Sounds almost harmless.

But it isn’t.  In fact it can be very dangerous.

Recently a friend on Twitter who is an airline pilot talked about getting hit by a laser while on final approach the other night.  I had never really paid much attention to this phenonmena, so I thought I’d look into it. 

Turns out a USAToday article in Janurary reported that over 2,800 pilots reported being targeted with lasers.  This is a doubling of these incidents from 2009 and represents a 10-fold increase since 2005. 

The problem is that these lasers can blind pilots in critical phases of flight, namely takeoff and landing.  As pointed out in a NYTimes article, laser beams diffuse with distance, but the intensity remains.  What that means is that a beam 1/25 of an inch wide can be 2 to 3 feet wide by the time if arrives at an unsuspecting pilot’s cockpit.  And yet, it’s just as brilliant and blinding as it is at 3 feet. 

The risks are obvious.  Laser pointers continue to increase in size and power and the damage they can inflict. Recently a 15 year-old student burned his retina and damaged his vision when he got an eye full of a powerful green laser he was using to try and pop balloons. 

Click for scientific details behind these picturesThis photo and it’s related article are a great and scientific analysis of what happens and why.  You can clearly see the blinding effect the laser causes on this simulated night flight.  The flashes simulate the effect of having repeated “hits” because most people can’t steadily hold the laser on a moving aircraft.  Therefore, pilots often get hit several times in a row.  See this article for more information. 

It’s not a joke at all.  Please let people know this is dangerous.


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