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The incidents of laser hazards in aviation continue to climb and many eye specialists have no idea how to deal with the problem, delegates were told at the 58th annual Business Aviation Safety Seminar in Montreal in April. It was the first time the seminar was held outside the U.S.


July 10, 2013
By Brian Dunn

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The incidents of laser hazards in aviation continue to climb and many eye specialists have no idea how to deal with the problem, delegates were told at the 58th annual Business Aviation Safety Seminar in Montreal in April. It was the first time the seminar was held outside the U.S.

“For pilots, the dangers from exposure to lasers in the aviation environment are threefold. First, the visual effects of lasers may compromise aviation safety, particularly at critical phases of flight. Second, the laser may cause temporary or permanent physical damage to the eyes. Finally, laser exposures may result in psychological trauma with residual effects,” explained Quay Snyder, MD, president/CEO, Aviation Medicine Advisory Service of the National Business Aviation Association.

The number of aviation laser events in the U.S. increased 13-fold from 283 in 2005 to 3,591 in 2011, although the Federal Aviation Administration reported 3,482 events last year, the first decline since statistics were collected, Snyder noted.

“Great Britain, Canada and Australia report similar rises in aircraft being accidentally struck or intentionally targeted by ground-based lasers, usually handheld. Per capita and aircraft flights, these countries have higher rates than the U.S.” he said.

The trend may be declining in the U.S. due to increased awareness of the potentially severe risks posed by these events, Snyder added. Washington recently increased the penalties for striking an aircraft with a laser. In 2012, President Obama signed a law subjecting those who knowingly aim a laser pointer at an aircraft to $11,000 in fines and up to five years in prison for each event.

“The media has increased coverage of both aircraft struck by lasers and prosecutions of offenders, increasing public awareness of the problem. Other countries are also taking steps to increase the civil and criminal penalties for interfering with a flight crew by use of laser illumination,” said Snyder.

Laser characteristics include power output, wavelength, divergence of the laser and pulse versus continuous laser, with pulse being the most dangerous. There are five classes of lasers with the lowest being Class 1 of less than 0.5 milliwatts of power used in CD and DVD players to read encoded data and Class 2 lasers (0.5-1.0 mw of power) used in store barcode scanners that do not cause eye damage if used as intended.

Class 3b and Class 4 lasers (greater than 500 mw of power) have the potential to cause permanent eye damage and are used for industrial purposes, for weapon targeting by the military and for light shows. Lasers having 1,000 mw of power can be purchased on the Internet for $300, Snyder pointed out. A 500 mW laser will cause damage at 10 times the distance of a 5 mW laser. And green lasers are brighter than red ones.

Laser employment factors include direct versus indirect illumination, daytime versus nighttime, distance to an aircraft and phase of flight. A high-risk environment would be a slow moving aircraft close to the ground on a predictable flight path at night under visual flight rules where the aircraft is being intentionally targeted.

Some protective measures can be taken, according to Snyder, including crew training and reaction, the use of glare shields/light blockers, public education and increased legislation and enforcement. Snyder also recommended pilots turn up the cockpit lights, turn their head away from a laser and keep the head down, perform a go-around and declare an emergency. He said they should then, report the incident to authorities and warn other pilots. In addition, pilots should avoid rubbing their eyes, which can result in an abrasion that may be painful.

“Sometimes ATC will change runways to avoid laser incidents,” Snyder added. In terms of laser effects and eye injuries, he said permanent eye damage is very rare and usually requires no evaluation or treatment. But pilots are likely to suffer psychological effects and it may compromise the safety of an aircraft.

But pilots, air-traffic controllers or flight crew members who have been exposed to a laser beam should see an eye specialist if they experience swelling, pain, itching, watering, discharge, dryness or redness of the eye. Visual disturbance such as blurring, black spot, trouble reading, loss of peripheral vision, poor night vision and sensitivity to light are also warning signs. These symptoms may not appear until hours after the incident and may not be related directly to laser exposure, but could reflect other eye issues perhaps not previously noticed.

The highest risk is at the critical phase of flight when a pilot is unable to complete a landing safely, is unable to see instruments clearly and may have difficulty taxing.

In terms of what’s available on the market, there’s a model from www.wickedLasers.com called Spyder with 1,000 mW that sells for $300. There’s also the Torch 100W with 100,000 mW, which can melt plastic, light matches and cigarettes, and scramble eggs, for $149.95.

Snyder said there are many resources pilots can refer to when it comes to safety preparation, including the ALPA Guidance pamphlet entitled “Laser Illumination Threat Mitigation,” ICAO Document 9815 “Manual on laser emitters & flight safety,” and Pilot Safety Brochure (FAA AAM-400-10-3) “Laser Hazards in Navigable Airspace.” Transport Canada has similar resources, he added.

A safer approach
In another presentation entitled, “Why do business aircraft go off the runway more often than commercial aircraft?” it was revealed that 35 per cent of all takeoff and landing accidents with business operators involve runway excursions. And while business aircraft had 3.8 runway excursions per million flights in 2012, compared to 2.3 for commercial aircraft, the difference has been getting smaller over the past five years, according to presenter Gerard van Es, senior advisor, flight and safety operations, NLR-Air Transport Safety Institute. The period of his study was 1980 to 2010 worldwide and included turbine/turboprop aircraft, but excluded single-engine aircraft.

While runway excursion causes are the same for business and commercial aircraft, exposure to certain risk factors is often higher during business operations, said van Es.

He cited unstabilized approaches, long landings, fast landings and high tailwind landings as examples.

“Business aircraft tend to operate at smaller airports where runway monitoring is less sophisticated and there is less equipment for snow removal.” In terms of unsterilized approaches, laser incidents occur between one to eight per cent of all approaches in commercial operations and one to 14 per cent in business aircraft.

“And only one to two per cent of all unsterilized approaches result in a go-around with higher values in commercial operations,” said van Es. As for fast approaches, it is three to five times more likely in business aircraft operations and eight times more likely in long flare. There are also more tailwind landings in business operations.

“Remember, there is more than one factor causing runway excursions such as excess approach speed, late touchdown and delayed application of wheel brakes,” van Es noted.

Creating a safer footprint
The definition of a safety culture and the six steps needed to achieve it was also on the agenda.

“Not that long ago, an accident was just the price of doing business. Today, an accident can be the end of doing business,” said Gordon Dupont, CEO, System Safety Services.

“Statistics show that the probability of being killed in an aircraft accident varies from one in 260,000 flights (Africa) to one in 11,000,000 flights, and improving (U.S.). This is a difference of 42 times and the primary reason is very simple. The safety culture makes the difference.”

One of Dupont’s six steps is developing a just culture that recognizes that honest mistakes do happen and must be looked at as “learning outcomes” and not be dealt with through harsh punishment, including firings.

The second step is becoming trusting culture to avoid an “us versus them” mentality between employees and management and where everyone is working together to improve the level of safety instead. From the trusting culture evolves the reporting culture, which provides the means to analyze lessons learned from human errors and near misses.

“You can’t fix what you don’t know about and the persons with the authority to rectify the problem won’t know if the previous two steps aren’t in place and working,” Dupont noted.

The learning culture takes hold when a company learns from its mistakes and near mistakes and it can understand human error and develop “safety nets” within the corrective actions to prevent an occurrence. Step four is the informed culture, which provides vital feedback so all employees are part of the previous steps and feel it is one of their responsibilities. “This important feedback keeps everyone informed, educates, promotes teamwork and does wonders for morale,” said Dupont.

The final step is the flexible culture that calls for an organization to be able to make major changes if necessary and does not consider the status quo as an acceptable option, but will be constantly looking for better ways to operate more safely.

“With these steps in place, a safety culture has been accomplished with a safety management system to provide the structure. Safety is a never-ending goal with a continuous striving for improvement,” Dupont concluded.