Ornge says this year is already the worst yet for laser strikes, with two of its air ambulance helicopters hit Sunday in incidents that caused a possible eye injury to a pilot and grounded his aircraft for hours.
The agency said the pilot’s helicopter had just left Barrie to deliver a patient to Toronto’s Sunnybrook hospital when it was struck by a green laser around 10 p.m.
Director of helicopter flight operations Peter Cunnington said the pilot wasn’t impacted by the strike until he walked into Sunnybrook himself and the bright lights bothered his left eye. He was assessed in the hospital for suspected eye damage and told not to fly for the rest of his 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift.
That forced the aircraft — one of two assigned to a 250-kilometre radius from Toronto — to stay grounded. Ornge managed to cope with the reduced capacity and said the incident was reported to South Simcoe police and Transport Canada.
It was the second strike that day and the latest concerning example of lasers being pointed at Ornge aircraft, putting not just pilots and crew but also their patients at risk.
There have been 13 laser strikes so far in 2016, already surpassing the 11 total in 2015, which was the highest year since Ornge started keeping track in 2012. There were between eight and nine a year from 2012 and 2014.
“Where it used to be few and far between, the events only seem to be increasing,” said Cunnington, who has himself been hit by a laser while flying. He wasn’t hurt by the “momentary flash” but it distracted him.
In total, there have now been 49 laser incidents in the last four years, including the one early Sunday when a Kenora-based Ornge helicopter was hit by a green laser while carrying a patient to Winnipeg.
That laser exposure lasted two minutes and no one was injured, the agency said.
Cunnington said the roll-out of night-vision goggles for Ornge pilots on night flights should hopefully cut the visibility of lasers aimed at the service’s air fleet.
The increasing prevalence of powerful hand-pointed lasers has led to a dramatic spike in incidents of them being pointed at aircraft, with Transport Canada logging nearly 600 such incidents last year alone.
Cunnington said that while Ottawa has launched a public-safety campaign warning of the dangers of laser pointers — an effort Ornge was involved in — the message doesn’t seem to be getting through.
While it is a criminal offence to flash a laser at airborne vehicles, he said that in his view people aren’t thinking twice before doing it.
“My main concern, I think, is I would hope that the authorities have better means of tracking these people down. Even if you read the papers, the amount of people that actually wind up getting charged with a criminal offence on this isn’t that high,” Cunnington said.
“The fines are huge but it doesn’t seem that that many people are being charged. There are some, but there doesn’t seem to be enough to deter the behaviour.”