Pilots being temporarily blinded by green lasers a concern to astronomers

Astronomers are equally concerned about the rise of pilots being "lased" by green laser pointers.
Astronomers are equally concerned about the rise of pilots being "lased" by green laser pointers. Rob O'Neal/Florida Keys News Bureau via Getty Images)

TORONTO – Chris Vaughan is a geophysicist by day. But by night, you can find him outside with his telescope, conducting public astronomy education tours of the universe.

But pointing out a single star in a sea of stars can be difficult, particularly when you’re trying to show it to someone unfamiliar with the night sky. That’s when Vaughan takes out his green laser pointer.

“Much the same as a picture is worth a thousand words, a few seconds with the laser far outweighs many minutes of frustrating pointing and waving or physically grabbing and moving people in the dark to get them oriented,” said Vaughan, who is a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC), Toronto Centre. “Pointing out star patterns to people who don’t own telescopes allows them to quickly learn some celestial geography that they’ll retain from having seen it firsthand.”

The green laser pointer, or GLP, is a pen-sized pointer with a powerful green beam of light. The light generates near-infrared light and then focuses it, passing it into a crystal that emits the green light. The strength of these lasers vary, but are typically about 5 milliwatts and up.

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Astronomers use green lasers to point out stars and constellations during public outreach programs. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)
Astronomers use green lasers to point out stars and constellations during public outreach programs. (Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images). Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

But lately there has been a growing concern among astronomers and police officials about the devices. Rather than these lasers being used for educational or professional purposes, people are entertaining themselves with them, often shining the light into cockpits of planes or helicopters.

And these incidents of pilots being “lased” — temporarily blinded while flying — are on the rise. In 2010, Transport Canada reported 183 incidents of a green laser being pointed at a pilot. By 2011, that number rose 25 per cent, to 229. In 2012, the number soared to 371 reported incidents.

“I don’t know why you would think it would be fun to flash an airplane,” said Daniel Sunder, National Chair of the Canadian Federal Pilots Association

Captain Barry F. Wiszniowski, Flight Safety Division Chairman of the Air Canada Pilots Association is very concerned about the safety of both pilots and passengers.

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“During critical phases of flight, when our depth perception, our visual acuity and situational awareness needs to be at its maximum, it can all be destroyed. And that’s the threat to the passengers on the aircraft, passengers in the vicinity of the airport,” he said.

“They did a study with the FAA where they measured a pilot’s performance without the distraction of the laser and [with it]… And in that study they found that 75 per cent of the pilots had a degradation of their performance in their ability to properly carry out a missed approach…or the landing. It is the distraction level during the critical phase of flight that is of significant issue to the pilots operating an aircraft.”

But more and more people who are misusing these lasers are being charged. This past February a 30-year-old Langley, B.C. man was given a five-month conditional sentence after pointing a laser at an RCMP helicopter in April 2011.

The most recent incident took place in Nova Scotia this June. A green laser was aimed at a passenger jet as it was making its approach to the Halifax Stanfield International Airport. The RCMP continues to investigate.

Paul Heath, President of the RASC, Halifax Centre, is concerned about the proliferation of green lasers.

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“Unfortunately there are two or three companies promoting them online as toys,” he said. “That’s a scary thing.”

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Many astronomers are concerned that the people who are being arrested for these incidents are being unfairly associated with astronomers.

“All these bad apples ruin it for the good apples,” said RASC Toronto Centre President, Charles Darrow. “And unfortunately our use of it may get tarnished.”

Randall Rosenfeld, chair of the Green Laser Pointer Committee of the RASC realizes where the association comes from.

“These things are being shone in the air. It’s happening at night…who’s out at night? Who uses green laser pointers? Ergo, it’s got to be astronomers. There’s not been one case of an amateur astronomer being charged or convicted of the misuse of green laser pointers. And most of the established amateur astronomical groups do have a policy and do have guidelines, and the RASC has them.”

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Rosenfeld said that many people are unaware of just how powerful a green laser can be when pointed at the eyes. It’s something that Vaughan take seriously.

“I, for one, do a lot of outreach with large groups (up to 100 people at times),” said Vaughan. “[I] find the laser pointer completely invaluable. Yes — I always get asked to pass it around or lend it, which I decline, and explain the risks and responsibilities associated with their use.”

The RASC has guidelines for the use of GLPs and issues brochures and posters in order to promote awareness.

Rosenfeld would like to see Canada adopt something similar to what the government in New South Wales, Australia did: they banned GLPs except for those who use them professionally as well as those who are members of an approved astronomical association.

According to Transport Canada, if you are convicted of pointing a laser into a cockpit, you could face a $100,000 maximum fine and up to five years in prison.

Ralph Chou, a professor of optometry at the University of Waterloo and former RASC president of the Toronto Centre, has very little sympathy for people who shine these pointers into the eyes of pilots.

“In my viewpoint, anybody who is irresponsible enough to flash a vehicle or an aircraft like that, deserves what they get.”