Whether piloting an air ambulance, police or a news helicopter, anticipating potential laser attacks is now a standard part of many helicopter pilots' flight routine.
The ability to be stationary, and exposed - through windows - from head to toe (depending on the specific type of helicopter), leaves the pilot open to several safety risks from those who might wish to distract or endanger them. In this article, we take a look at the threat in closer detail and explore what options pilots have for protecting themselves.
Surprisingly, it is not a helicopter's proximity to the laser source that poses the most danger. While proximity is a factor, it's the length of time that a pilot can be exposed, and the angle of exposure to the laser, which are the most significant concerns.
Increased laser exposure of the pilot is due to the helicopter's ability to be fixed in one position. That, combined with the lack of wiggle room in the cockpit, mean that a helicopter pilot can be hit by a laser for a much longer time. This risk is amplified further, depending on whether the helicopter pilot is also using night-vision equipment–which is common in many search and rescue situations.
One must also consider the angle of the laser as well. Many standard laser protection solutions provide insufficient protection against lasers coming from a drastic upward angle.
It should go without saying that there is an obvious safety risk to helicopter pilots exposed to laser light, but the health risk is exponentially higher than when piloting an aeroplane. Contrary to the more limited health risks which aeroplane pilots face, helicopter pilots can experience lasting eye damage when targeted by laser light.
In a recent case published in the Milwaukee Sentinel, a helicopter pilot "was attempting to land in Pardeeville to pick up a 17-year-old boy injured in an all-terrain vehicle crash, when someone on the ground aimed a strong laser pointer at the aircraft."
Because the pilot was wearing night-vision equipment to help with manoeuvring the helicopter in darkness, it amplified the laser light to such a degree that the pilot had to abandon the rescue and "return to the UW Med Flight home base for treatment."
This situation was not only a health risk for the pilot, but also for the young boy, suffering from head injuries and broken bones–who then had to suffer through the long process of being taken to the hospital by ambulance.
The most obvious solution to the growing problem is special protection that can be worn by helicopter pilots, to mitigate the risk of laser exposure altogether. Currently, laser protection equipment is manufactured using three different technologies: Films, which are laminated to glass or plastic. Impregnation of dyes into the plastic. And a proprietary nano-technology developed by MTI. Each of these solutions has their own advantages, but not all of them are the most optimal for helicopter pilot use.
We spoke with the foremost expert on laser protection and laser safety, Patrick Murphy of laserpointersafety.com, to get his thoughts on the various type of technologies.
"There are advantages and disadvantages to each. For example, the thin film works best when the laser is coming directly at you. If it comes from the side, the glasses are not as effective. Whereas, with the products that used the dyeing process, the protection is effective no matter where the laser is coming from. In a test that we did in an aircraft simulator, we found that it wasn't much of an issue if the laser came in from the side, because the pilot's eyes are generally focused straight ahead. Of course, this differs with helicopter pilots where the laser light can come in from below the glasses."
Patrick commented further on dye-based solutions, stating, "The downside to dyes is that they can distort colour. There are only so many wavelengths that one can defend against. If you're blocking the green, blocking the blue, and blocking the red, then you pretty much can see anything anymore."
This point further illustrates the urgency to procure the right solutions, as the wrong one could endanger the pilot even further.
With most helicopters outfitted with windows located near the feet, called Chin Bubbles, Patrick exposes a good point about the necessity for laser protection to fit securely to the pilots face, without hindering the pilot's ability to see. Helicopter pilots generally have their gaze moving in all directions, rather than usually fixed in a forward direction. Combining this with a window providing direct access to the pilot from below, choosing the right laser protection equipment becomes even more of paramount concern.
As we saw in the case mentioned above, there is also the issue with laser protection integration with night-vision equipment. Currently, there are few options, the most optimal being either MTI's upcoming MetaAir laser protection, which can be used seamlessly with night-vision goggles (NVG's) or purchasing anti-laser filters, which are available for only select brands of NFG's.
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This blog is driven by Satair Marketing & Communication with input from both internal and external contributors.
Satair is a world leading provider of aftermarket services and solutions for the civil aerospace industry. Satair is a stand-alone company and Airbus subsidiary.