Surge in laser pointer incidents poses threat to USAF aircraft

Transport Canada

The US Office of Special Investigations (OSI) is currently facing a concerning surge in incidents involving laser pointers that pose significant threats to US Air Force aircraft, particularly during nighttime operations. “We refer to these as lazing incidents. It’s crucial for the public to understand that aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft is not only dangerous but a felony,” emphasized an official from the OSI Center. 

Established in 1948, the OSI is the principal investigative agency within the Department of the Air Force, conducting criminal investigations and providing counterintelligence services. 

The impact of a laser beam on pilots can be likened to a camera flash in a pitch-black car at night, leading to sudden disorientation and temporary blindness. This risk is most severe during critical phases of flight, potentially resulting in the loss of aircraft and crew, endangering lives on the ground. Additionally, such incidents pose a risk of causing permanent visual impairment to pilots.  

In response to these incidents, pilots are now trained to react by looking away from the laser source before using their instruments and informing air traffic control about the specific details, including an approximate geolocation of the culprit. 

In recent years, the Federal Aviation Administration has documented a significant increase in reported laser incidents. In 2022, pilots filed a total of 9,457 incident reports, a 350% increase since the administration started tracking laser strikes in 2010, and the second-highest number behind the 9,723 reports from the previous year in 2021. 

In accordance with the US Securing Aircraft Cockpits Against Lasers Act of 2011, the person responsible for such an attack, which is considered a federal offense, risks a five-year prison sentence and a fine that may vary between $5,000 and $250,000. 

The US military has become increasingly concerned about the disruptive potential of laser strikes on aircraft. For instance, in 2015 China was reported to be working on the development of “blinding laser weapons”. 

In May 2018, a laser incident at Camp Lemonnier base in Djibouti resulted in injuries to the flight crew of a USAF C-130 Hercules. Subsequently, the Pentagon issued a notice to its airmen in the area, and the U.S. government publicly filed a diplomatic complaint, accusing Chinese personnel also stationed in Djibouti of involvement in the incident. 

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