June 16, 2008

Laser Risk at Airport; Concerned Pilots Report Cockpits ‘Bathed in Green’


PILOTS risk being blinded by laser attacks on passenger-filled aircraft, with Wellington airport the most dangerous in the country, aviation authorities have warned.

The Civil Aviation Authority said Wellington International Airport was the most "popular" for attacks on planes, due to flight paths and the airport's proximity to houses.

In a rare prosecution, a Wellington man has been charged with pointing a green laser into the cockpit of a commercial jet with 49 passengers on March 4 as it came into land from Christchurch.

Figures that the CAA has released to The Dominion Post show a 321 per cent increase in laser attacks in the past 18 months.

They usually involve someone pointing a high-powered green laser into cockpits, sometimes from as far away as five kilometres.

The lasers, which are slightly larger than a ballpoint pen and emit a neon green beam, are typically used by tour guides and people giving presentations to point at objects from a distance.

A man, 24, was charged in Wellington District Court yesterday with committing criminal nuisance by shining a green laser into the cockpit of a commercial aircraft knowing it would endanger life. He pleaded not guilty.

CAA spokesman Bill Sommer said pilots usually reported lasers coming from Newlands, Mt Victoria and Miramar.

"The distraction comes at a time where the pilot already has a very high workload, especially coming into Wellington airport. There's a concern for eye damage but more so for the distraction."

Pilots reported cockpits to be "bathed in green" during an attack, which could last for minutes at a time.

Paul Lyons, the Air Line Pilots' Association aviation security coordinator, said the attacks were most dangerous at night when pilots prepared for landing by turning down the cockpit lighting.

"The laser illuminates the whole deck. If a pilot is looking in the direction of the laser then they experience lost vision momentarily. If both pilots are looking in that direction, there is the potential loss of control of the whole aircraft."

Laser attacks had been a concern to airlines for almost 10 years, and attacks "seemed to be on the increase", said Mr Lyons, a former commercial pilot.

"There's probably two reasons why. Lasers are more readily available on the Internet and, as technology changes, their capability increases."

Mr Sommer confirmed that the CAA has had 35 reports of laser incidents since 1999, almost 70 per cent of them in Wellington. The latest reported was on April 3.

"Most of the reports of laser attacks to the CAA have come from major airlines. Wellington airport is virtually in the middle of the city, and the approach goes right over Newlands and near Mt Vic," he said.

"The people who are doing it, these guys are idiots. I don't know why they do it. Perhaps they watch too many movies.

"I see no reason why any sane person would want to do it."

Mr Lyons agreed: "I don't think they appreciate the dangers. I would hate to think there were members of society who would like to bring a plane down."

A Marlborough Sounds man pleaded guilty this month to endangering public safety by aiming a laser beam at Interislander ferries in Tory Channel.

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