Lasers and aviation safety

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Under certain conditions, laser light or other bright lights (spotlights, searchlights) directed at aircraft can be a hazard. The most likely scenario is when a bright visible laser light causes distraction or temporary flash blindness to a pilot, during a critical phase of flight such as landing or takeoff. It is far less likely, though still possible, that a visible or invisible beam could cause permanent harm to a pilot's eyes. Although laser weapons are under development by armed forces, these are so specialized, expensive and controlled that it is improbable for non-military lasers to cause structural damage to an aircraft.

Laser Device which emits light via optical amplification

A laser is a device that emits light through a process of optical amplification based on the stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation. The term "laser" originated as an acronym for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation". The first laser was built in 1960 by Theodore H. Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratories, based on theoretical work by Charles Hard Townes and Arthur Leonard Schawlow.

Flash blindness is a visual impairment during and following exposure to a light flash of extremely high intensity. The bright light overwhelms the eye and gradually fades, lasting anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes.

Landing transition from being in flight to being on a surface

Landing is the last part of a flight, where a flying animal, aircraft, or spacecraft returns to the ground. When the flying object returns to water, the process is called alighting, although it is commonly called "landing", "touchdown" or "splashdown" as well. A normal aircraft flight would include several parts of flight including taxi, takeoff, climb, cruise, descent and landing.


Pointing a laser at an aircraft can be hazardous to pilots, [1] and has resulted in arrests, trials and jail sentences. It also results in calls to license or ban laser pointers. Some jurisdictions such as New South Wales, Australia have restricted laser pointers as a result of multiple incidents. [2]

New South Wales State of Australia

New South Wales is a state on the east coast of Australia. It borders Queensland to the north, Victoria to the south, and South Australia to the west. Its coast borders the Tasman Sea to the east. The Australian Capital Territory is an enclave within the state. New South Wales' state capital is Sydney, which is also Australia's most populous city. In September 2018, the population of New South Wales was over 8 million, making it Australia's most populous state. Just under two-thirds of the state's population, 5.1 million, live in the Greater Sydney area. Inhabitants of New South Wales are referred to as New South Welshmen.

Australia Country in Oceania

Australia, officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a sovereign country comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands. It is the largest country in Oceania and the world's sixth-largest country by total area. The neighbouring countries are Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and East Timor to the north; the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu to the north-east; and New Zealand to the south-east. The population of 25 million is highly urbanised and heavily concentrated on the eastern seaboard. Australia's capital is Canberra, and its largest city is Sydney. The country's other major metropolitan areas are Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide.

Lasers and bright lights

In addition to lasers, other bright directional lights such as searchlights and spotlights can have the same dazzling, distracting, and flashblinding effects.

Lasers in airspace

Lasers are used in industry and research, such as in atmospheric remote sensing, and as guide stars in adaptive optics astronomy. Lasers and searchlights are used in entertainment; for example, in outdoor shows such as the nightly IllumiNations show at Walt Disney World's Epcot. Laser pointers are used by the general public; sometimes they will be accidentally or deliberately aimed at or near aircraft.

Remote sensing Acquisition of information at a significant distance from the subject

Remote sensing is the acquisition of information about an object or phenomenon without making physical contact with the object and thus in contrast to on-site observation, especially the Earth. Remote sensing is used in numerous fields, including geography, land surveying and most Earth Science disciplines ; it also has military, intelligence, commercial, economic, planning, and humanitarian applications.

IllumiNations was a series of nightly fireworks shows at Epcot before IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth was created in 1999 for the Millennium Celebration.

Walt Disney World Entertainment complex in Florida, United States

The Walt Disney World Resort, also called Walt Disney World and Disney World, is an entertainment complex in Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista, Florida, in the United States, near the cities Orlando and Kissimmee. Opened on October 1, 1971, the resort is owned and operated by Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, a division of The Walt Disney Company. It was first operated by Walt Disney World Company. The property, which covers nearly 25,000 acres, only half of which has been used, comprises four theme parks, two water parks, twenty-seven themed resort hotels, nine non-Disney hotels, several golf courses, a camping resort, and other entertainment venues, including the outdoor shopping center Disney Springs.

Lasers are even used, or proposed for use, with aircraft. Pilots straying into unauthorized airspace over Washington, D.C. can be warned to turn back by shining eye-safe low-power red and green lasers at them. [3] At least one system has been tested that would use lasers on final approach to help line up the pilot on the proper glideslope. NASA has tested a Helicopter Airborne Laser Positioning System. [4] The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has tested laser-projected lines on airport runways, to increase visibility of "hold short" markings. [5] Because of these varied uses, it is not practical to ban lasers from airspace.

Federal Aviation Administration United States Government agency dedicated to civil aviation matters

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is a governmental body of the United States with powers to regulate all aspects of civil aviation in that nation as well as over its surrounding international waters. Its powers include the construction and operation of airports, air traffic management, the certification of personnel and aircraft, and the protection of U.S. assets during the launch or re-entry of commercial space vehicles. Powers over neighboring international waters were delegated to the FAA by authority of the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Primary hazards of lasers and bright lights

FAA flight simulator showing distraction where the light does not obscure vision but can distract the pilot. Light intensity 0.5 mW/cm2; for example, a legal 5 mW laser pointer at 3,700 feet (1,100 m). Runway distraction anim.gif
FAA flight simulator showing distraction where the light does not obscure vision but can distract the pilot. Light intensity 0.5 μW/cm²; for example, a legal 5 mW laser pointer at 3,700 feet (1,100 m).
FAA flight simulator showing veiling glare where it is hard to see through the light to the background scene. Light level 5.0 mW/cm2; for example, a legal 5 mW laser pointer at 1,200 feet (370 m). Runway glare anim.gif
FAA flight simulator showing veiling glare where it is hard to see through the light to the background scene. Light level 5.0 μW/cm²; for example, a legal 5 mW laser pointer at 1,200 feet (370 m).
Simulation of temporary flash blindness where the image takes from a few seconds to a few minutes to fade away, depending on how much light entered the eye. Light level 50 mW/cm2; for example, a legal 5 mW laser pointer at 350 feet (110 m). Runway flashblindness anim.gif
Simulation of temporary flash blindness where the image takes from a few seconds to a few minutes to fade away, depending on how much light entered the eye. Light level 50 μW/cm²; for example, a legal 5 mW laser pointer at 350 feet (110 m).

The photos at right flash because most incidents are of flashes and not of steady illumination. In accidental illuminations there may be just one or a few flashes. Even in deliberate illuminations, it is difficult to keep a hand-held laser focused on a moving target, so there will be a series of longer flashes.[ citation needed ] With helicopters at close range, it is possible to have a more or less continuous light. The flashes shown greatly exaggerate the duration of a laser flash and use green rather than less visible red light. With a plane traveling hundreds of miles per hour and a laser beam size of only a meter or so, flash durations would be measured in thousandths of a second.[ citation needed ]

There are some subjects which aviation safety experts agree pose no real hazard. These include passenger exposure to laser light, pilot distraction during cruising or other non-critical phases of flight, and laser damage to the aircraft. The main concerns of safety experts are focused on laser and bright light effects on pilots, especially when they are in a critical phase of flight: takeoff, approach, landing, and emergency maneuvers. [6]

There are four primary areas of concern. The first three are visual effects that temporarily distract or block pilots' vision. These effects are only of concern when the laser emits visible light.

The three visual effects above are the primary concern for aviation experts. This is because they could happen with lower-powered lasers that are commonly available. The fourth concern, eye damage, is much less likely: it would require specialized equipment not readily available to the general public.

It is extremely unlikely that any of the four elements above would cause loss of the aircraft.

Analyzing the hazard

The exact hazard in a specific situation depends on a number of factors.

Bright light factors

Operational factors

Situational factors

Pilot and aircrew factors

The U.S. FAA has studied some of these factors. [9] They conducted research using pilots in flight simulators to determine the effects of laser exposure on pilot performance; results were released in August 2003 [10] and June 2004. [6]

Example laser safety calculations

Graphic illustrating how laser pointer hazards are most serious when the laser is close to the aircraft Laser pointer safety distances.svg
Graphic illustrating how laser pointer hazards are most serious when the laser is close to the aircraft

The graphic (right) illustrates laser safety concepts. [11] For example, it shows that the areas of most concern—eye damage, flash blindness and glare—occur relatively close to the aircraft. The distraction risk covers the longest hazard distance, but also presents the least concern. The photos in the graphic also give an idea of what the visual effect looks like to the pilot, at various distances. While the distances given are exact, the laser's brightness is in fact falling off slowly and so effects diminish continuously with increasing distance.

Also, the weaker effects are part of any stronger effect. Even if a laser does not cause eye damage at 25 feet, it can still cause flash blindness, glare and a distraction.

For any given laser, the relative distances shown here may change. For example, an infrared laser can be an eye hazard for hundreds of feet, but presents no flash blindness, glare or distraction hazard. Because of this, each laser must be analyzed individually.

To give another example, of a more powerful laser—the type that might be used in an outdoor laser show: a 6-watt green (532 nm) laser with a 1.1 milliradian beam divergence is an eye hazard to about 1,600 feet (490 meters), can cause flash blindness to about 8,200 feet (1.5 mi/2.5 km), causes veiling glare to about 36,800 feet (7 mi; 11 km), and is a distraction to about 368,000 feet (70 mi; 110 km). [12] [ better source needed ]

Reducing the hazard

There are a number of ways that laser users, regulators and pilots reduce the potential hazard from outdoor laser use. These measures include:

Police enforcement

Police have begun using helicopters to patrol and seek out people using lasers to disrupt aviation. [13]

User hazard reduction measures

Regulatory hazard reduction measures

Pilot/aircrew hazard reduction measures

Active hazard reduction (proposed measures)

Some measures have been proposed to protect aircrews including goggles and windscreen filters. [23] These may work in theory (especially against known wavelengths) and may be useful in some situations such as military operations. [24] However, these measures may not be suitable, practical or recommended for widespread civil air operations.

Regulation and control

The U.S. FAA Laser Free Zone extends horizontally 2 NM (3,700 m) from the centerline of all runways (two dark lines in this diagram) with additional 3 NM (5,560 m) extensions at each end of a runway. Vertically, the LFZ extends to 2,000 feet (610 m) above ground level. FAA laser-free-zone.svg
The U.S. FAA Laser Free Zone extends horizontally 2 NM (3,700 m) from the centerline of all runways (two dark lines in this diagram) with additional 3 NM (5,560 m) extensions at each end of a runway. Vertically, the LFZ extends to 2,000 feet (610 m) above ground level.
The U.S. FAA Critical Flight Zone extends horizontally 10 nmi (19 km) around the airport, and extends vertically to 10,000 feet (3,000 m) above ground level. The optional Sensitive Flight Zone is designated around special airspace needing bright-light protection. FAA airspace-flight-zones.svg
The U.S. FAA Critical Flight Zone extends horizontally 10 nmi (19 km) around the airport, and extends vertically to 10,000 feet (3,000 m) above ground level. The optional Sensitive Flight Zone is designated around special airspace needing bright-light protection.

In the United States, laser airspace guidelines can be found in Federal Aviation Administration Order JO 7400.2, Chapter 29 "Outdoor Laser Operations", and bright light airspace guidelines are in Chapter 30 "High Intensity Light Operations". [28]

In the United Kingdom, CAP 736 is the "Guide for the Operation of Lasers, Searchlights and Fireworks in United Kingdom Airspace." [29]

For all laser users, the ANSI Z136.6 document gives guidance for the safe use of outdoor lasers. [14] While this document is copyrighted by ANSI and is relatively costly, a flavor of its recommendations can be seen in NASA's Use Policy for Outdoor Lasers. [15]

Airspace zones

The U.S. FAA has established airspace zones. These protect the area around airports and other sensitive airspace from the hazards of safe-but-too-bright visible laser light exposure:

For non-visible lasers (infrared and ultraviolet), the irradiance at the aircraft must be eye-safe—below the Maximum Permissible Exposure level for that wavelength. For pulsed visible lasers, the irradiance at the aircraft must be both eye-safe and must be at or below any applicable FAA laser zone.

In the UK, restrictions are in place in a zone that includes a circle 3 nmi (5.6 km) in radius around an airport, plus extensions from each end of each runway. The runway zones are rectangles 20 nmi (37 km) in total length and 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) wide, centered about each runway.


In the U.S., operators of outdoor lasers are requested to file reports with the FAA at least 30 days in advance, detailing their location and laser power. It is permitted to use lasers whose output exceeds the limits of these zones, if other control measures are in place. For example, spotters could be used to watch for aircraft, and turn off the laser if a potential conflict is sighted. The FAA does not approve or disapprove requests, as it does not have the regulatory authority for this, but rather indicates whether it objects or does not object.[ citation needed ] If the laser use is for a show or display, approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Devices and Radiological Health is required. A prerequisite for this approval is a letter of non-objection from the FAA.[ citation needed ] Laser activity in a given area is communicated to pilots before their flight via a NOTAM. [20]

UK laser operators report outdoor laser, searchlight or firework operations at least 28 days in advance. [29]

Regulatory and standards development

A key group inside the U.S. working on laser and aviation safety is the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) G-10T, Laser Safety Hazards Subcommittee. It consists of laser safety experts and researchers, pilots and other interested parties representing military, commercial and private aviation, and laser users. Their recommendations have formed the basis of the FAA laser and bright light regulations and forms, as well as standards adopted in other countries and by the ICAO.

The ANSI Z136.6 standard is the "American National Standard for Safe Use of Lasers Outdoors." [14] The Z136.6 committee has worked closely with SAE G-10T and others, to develop recommended safety procedures for outdoor laser use.


Until the early 1990s, laser and bright light aviation incidents were sporadic. In the U.S., NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System showed only one or two incidents per year. [30] The SAE G-10T subcommittee began meeting around 1993 as the number of incidents grew. Almost all of the incidents were known or suspected to be due to outdoor laser displays. Almost all of the concern was over potential eye damage; at the time visual effects were felt to be a minor consequence.

In late 1995, a number of illumination incidents occurred in Las Vegas due to new outdoor laser displays. Although the displays had been approved by the FDA as eye-safe for their airport proximity, no one had realized that the glare and distraction hazard would adversely affect pilots. In December 1995 the FDA issued an emergency order shutting down the Las Vegas shows.

Within the SAE G-10T subcommittee, there was some consideration about cutting back or banning laser shows. However, it became apparent that there were a large number of non-entertainment laser users as well. The focus shifted to control of known laser users, whether shows or industry/research. New policies and procedures were developed, such as the FAA 7200 Chapter 29, and Advisory Circular 70-1. Although incidents continued to occur (from January 1996 to July 1999, the FAA's Western-Pacific Region identified more than 150 incidents in which low-flying aircraft were illuminated by lasers), [31] the situation seemed under control.

Then in late 2004 and early 2005 came a significant increase in reported incidents linked to laser pointers. The wave of incidents may have been triggered in part by "copycats" who read press accounts of laser pointer incidents. In one case, David Banach of New Jersey was charged under federal Patriot Act anti-terrorism laws, after he allegedly shone a laser pointer at aircraft. [32]

Responding to the incidents, the Congressional Research Service issued a study on the laser "threat to aviation safety and security." [18] Because there was no federal law specifically banning deliberate laser illumination of aircraft, Congressman Ric Keller introduced H.R. 1400, the "Securing Airplane Cockpits Against Lasers Act of 2005." [33] The bill was passed by the U.S. House and Senate, but did not go to conference and thus did not become law. [34] In 2007, Keller re-introduced the bill as H.R. 1615. Although passed by the House in May 2007, it was not acted on by the Senate before the end of the 110th Congress and never became law. [35]

On March 28, 2008, a coordinated attack took place using four green laser pointers aimed at six aircraft landing at Sydney airport in New South Wales, Australia. [36] [37] As a result of this attack plus others, a law was proposed in mid-April 2008 in New South Wales to ban possession of handheld lasers, including low-power classroom pointers. [38] [39] The Australian state of Victoria has had a similar ban since 1998, but press reports state that it is easy to buy lasers without a permit. [40]

On February 22, 2009, a dozen planes were targeted with green laser beams at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. [41] An FAA spokeswoman said there were 148 laser attacks on aircraft in the U.S. from January 1, 2009 to February 23, 2009. [42]

During the July 2013 protests against the presidency of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and later celebration of his removal, thousands of protesters and revelers aimed laser pointers at government helicopters. [43] [44]

On February 2016 a Virgin Atlantic flight from Heathrow to New York JFK Airport was forced to turn back when a laser beam was shone into the cockpit. [45] The incident led the British Airline Pilots' Association to call for lasers to be classified as offensive weapons. [46]

In the first seven months of 2018, United States Armed Forces pilots were targeted with laser points in multiple regions, but particularly in the Middle East. [47]

See also

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  1. |Laser Safety in Aviation [ dead link ]
  2. "NSW bans laser pointers". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 21 April 2008. Retrieved 17 September 2018.
  3. Eastern Region FAA Safety Team Laser Warning System Video(Updated: 8:26 am ET October 5, 2007) Archived October 6, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  4. Helicopter Airborne Laser Positioning Systems (HALPS) (march 1990) NASA
  5. FAA press release: Laser Technology Will Make It Easier For Pilots To See Runway Markings Archived April 13, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  6. 1 2 June 2004 FAA follow-up study: "The Effects of Laser Illumination on Operational and Visual Performance of Pilots During Final Approach", DOT/FAA/AM-04/9. Archived October 1, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  7. "Luminous efficacy at HyperPhysics".[ dead link ]
  8. FAA AC-70-1, Table 5, shows these calculations, which are summarized here using the exact Visual Correction Factor for the wavelengths under consideration (FAA only gives ranges). Light at 555 nm appears brightest to the eye, so it has a VCF of 100% (1.0). Since light at 532 nm appears only 88% as bright (based on the CIE normalized efficiency photopic visual function curve for a standard observer), its VCF is 0.88. Light at 514 nm has a VCF of 0.585, and light at 488 nm has a VCF of 0.194. Now let's look at our two lasers. We have a 10-watt YAG emitting 10 watts of 532 nm light. The visually corrected power is 10W * 0.88VCF = 8.8 visually corrected watts. The 18-watt argon has 10 watts of 514 nm light (10W * 0.585VCF = 5.85 visually corrected watts) plus 8 watts of 488 nm light (8W * 0.194VCF = 1.55 visually corrected watts). Add the two argon outputs and you get a total of 5.85 + 1.55 = 7.40 visually corrected watts. This is how a 10-watt YAG beam can appear brighter to the eye than an 18-watt argon beam all other factors such as beam divergence being equal.
  9. “Laser Pointers: Their Potential Affects [sic] on Vision and Aviation Safety”, Van B. Nakagawara, DOT/FAA/AM-01/7, April 2001. Archived June 26, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
  10. August 2003 FAA study: "The Effects of Laser Illumination on Operational and Visual Performance of Pilots Conducting Terminal Operations", DOT/FAA/AM-03/12. Archived September 16, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  11. The laser effects and ranges shown in the graphic are based on consensus developed by the aviation advisory group SAE G-10T Laser Safety Hazards Subcommittee as published in SAE Aerospace Recommended Practice document 5293 (ARP5293) "Safety Considerations for Lasers Projected in the Navigable Airspace." These recommendations were adopted by the U.S. FAA, and are incorporated into FAA Order JO 7400.2, Chapter 29 "Outdoor Laser Operations". See for example the FAA's "Laser Free", "Critical", "Sensitive" and "Normal Flight Zone" power levels (FAA Order JO 7400.2, Para. 29-1-5). The SAE G-10T recommendations also were adopted by ANSI Z136.6, "Safe Use of Lasers Outdoors". The photographs in the graphic are from the FAA and demonstrate visual effects of laser light in an aircraft simulator.
  12. This calculation is based upon determining when the irradiance of the laser just falls below the light levels of the ANSI nominal ocular hazard (eye hazard), the FAA Sensitive Flight Zone (flash blindness), Critical Flight Zone (glare) and Laser Free Zone (distraction).
  13. BBC: Police fight back on laser threat
  14. 1 2 3 ANSI Z136.6 Standard, "Safe Use of Lasers Outdoors"
  15. 1 2 NASA’s “Use Policy for Outdoor Lasers” archived from the original
  16. "Laser pointers banned after attacks", Reuters article dated April 21, 2008
  17. “Safety Recommendations of Laser Pointers”, by Rockwell Laser Industries and the (U.S.) National Institutes of Occupational Safety & Health archived from the original Archived June 9, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  18. 1 2 3 CRS Report for Congress - Lasers Aimed at Aircraft Cockpits:Background and Possible Options to Address the Threat to Aviation Safety and Security - Bart Elias (January 26, 2005)Order Code:RS22033
  19. "HB 2164" (PDF). Retrieved 22 September 2014.
  20. 1 2 FAA Order JO 7400.2, Chapter 29, Para. 29-4-1 "Issuance of Notices to Airmen (NOTAM)"
  21. SAE Standards for Works in Progress, ARP5598, Laser Visual Interference - Pilot Operational Procedures
  22. 1 2 3 "Laser Illuminations: Last Line of Defense - The Pilot!" by Capt. C.W. "Bill" Connor, Ph.D., Air Line Pilot, April 2005, p. 21
  23. Sample page provided by Google Book Search, from Weapons of Mass Casualties and Terrorism Response by Charles Edward Stewart, Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 2006.
  24. "Aircrew laser eye protection visors", Opt. Eng. Vol. 44, 084303, August 29, 2005, referenced from SPIE Digital Library online [ permanent dead link ]
  25. "Military hazard software gauges human thresholds" by Hassaun Jones-Bey, LaserFocusWorld magazine, September 1, 2000
  26. "Active laser protection system", U.S. Patent 7202852, retrieved from
  27. "Stowable laser eye protection", U.S. Patent 7344260, retrieved from
  28. FAA Order JO 7400.2
  29. 1 2 CAP736: Guide for the Operation of Lasers,Searchlights and Fireworks in the United Kingdom Airspace ( Archived September 26, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  30. A sampling of NASA ASRS laser incident reports can be done by searching for the term "laser".
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  32. - N.J. man charged with aiming laser at aircraft: By Alan Levin (Posted 1/4/2005 12:41 PM)
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