How exactly does a pilot experience being struck by laser illumination, and what happens inside the cockpit during and after a laser attack? Hear the inside story from a former pilot in the Q&A below.
The number of laser attacks on aircraft has exploded since the early 2000s, creating a stir in the pilot community. However, not everyone shares the concern of the industry; with some still referring to laser strikes on aircraft as distracting at worst, rather than downright hazardous for pilots and the safety of the aircraft.
Someone who has experienced the potentially dangerous effects of a laser strike - firsthand - is former pilot Kasper Tranberg. For more than a decade, from 2005 to 2016, he flew a variety of routes across Europe and Africa, before making the move to the aftermarket business as a Customer Solutions Director at Satair.
Why isn’t laser protection industry standard?
In the start of his career, Kasper Tranberg was employed as First Officer on the ATR-aircraft and then moved on to fly the CRJ-200 Bombardier aircraft. In the latter part of his career, he was a captain on a Boeing 737-800 NG, employed by a Danish carrier and a large European airline.
He tells that the threat and frequency of laser strikes rose exponentially with his career, peaking in 2016 – the same year as he retired. This is his story.
– Hi Kasper, thanks for sharing your story with us. Tell us a bit about laser strikes – did you ever experience an attack yourself?
» Unfortunately, I've had multiple experiences. In the latter part of my career, from 2011-2016, I witnessed laser strikes - more or less - every other week, in connection with flight operations to and from European cities. The incidents ranged from mildly distracting to directly affecting the flight path of the aircraft, and most of them occurred during the descent, approach or departure part of the flight. «
» However, today we’re seeing lasers that are powerful enough to reach aircraft at their cruising altitude – as high as 30.000 feet or more than 9.000 meters – which I find very concerning. «
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– How did the various laser strikes affect you and your co-pilot?
» The mildest versions caused sporadic beams of light in the cockpit, distracting us slightly but not enough to cause a diversion of the flight path. In the more severe cases, we witnessed continuous exposure to laser lights from the front of the cockpit during, for example, an approach to a runway. It was a major distraction, to a degree that it made us feel like we were not able to look through the front windscreen. As you can imagine, this is quite a big concern when you’re handling a 70-ton aircraft! «
– What was the common reaction to a laser attack?
» At the time, there weren’t really any remedies to counter the effects of these strikes. We basically had to duck behind the dashboard to avoid being flash-blinded, and in the most severe cases, the laser attack forced us to execute a go-around and make another approach into the airport. «
– Is making a go-around a safety concern?
» A go-around is a very standardised procedure, however, it can be very stressful for pilots and passengers. It can be a complex manoeuvre, especially around crowded airports and in mountainous terrain. Also, it consumes a lot of fuel, perhaps even some of the reserve fuel. It makes the pilot feel intense pressure, as the second approach needs to be successful because of the stress to the aircraft, passengers and fuel consumption. «
– Are laser strikes a common concern amongst pilots?
» We've all witnessed laser strikes in the air, but the concern is very divided. The pilots involved in the severe incidents are, naturally, more concerned than those who only witnessed mild distractions. I think most can agree that it has now become a safety concern like, for instance, lightning strikes and drone or bird strikes. And although laser strikes, fortunately, haven’t caused an accident yet, they have caught the attention of pilot unions around the world as well as authorities, like the EASA and FAA, who are taking the issue very seriously. «
– What is the worst-case scenario caused by a laser strike?
» The industry has seen examples of pilots having been blinded to a mild degree, some even causing permanent damage to pilots’ sight and jeopardising their career and income. There are also several cases of aircraft having to declare what we call a PAN-PAN call – a mild distress call – forcing the aircraft to return to the departure airport because of the incapacitation of one of the pilots. «
– Do you feel like the number of laser attacks increased during your career?
» Yes, definitely, and the statistics are backing us up on that. In 2016, there were more than 7.000 laser incidents in the U.S. alone – that’s around 21 strikes every day. And that number only refers to the reported cases, meaning that they must have been somewhat affecting the pilots’ ability to safely manoeuvre the aircraft. «
» I think the explosion in the number of attacks is closely related to handheld lasers having become significantly cheaper and more powerful in the last decade. As I said, I’ve heard of aircraft being struck by these powerful devices at an altitude as high as 30.000 feet. «
– 21 incidents a day reported to the FFA alone – that’s a big number. Why are laser strikes potentially dangerous to aircraft?
» They are dangerous at multiple levels. If you have any kind of distraction of the pilots, it’s basically a safety concern, especially during a critical part of a flight. That’s the milder degree. The more severe degree is an actual injury to the pilots, making laser strikes directly hazardous for the pilot and the flight. «
– Besides safety, are there any other implications related to laser attacks?
» Yes, beyond the distraction or even incapacitation of the pilots, laser strikes can also prove to be a costly affair for the airline. There are the potential operational costs – a diversion, for instance, could cost the airline up to 400.000 USD in fuel costs, schedule disruption, handling of connecting passengers, hotel bookings, and so forth. «
» Then there are the safety-related costs, in terms of the potential grounding of the crew. Lastly, you have the reputation-related costs, caused by the media covering incidents related to laser strikes. «
» Just one single diversion is enough to finance the entire safety investment, so there’s definitely a business case for airlines to invest in some kind of protective equipment. «
– Ok, staying on the subject of protection. What can airlines do to protect the pilots from the laser strikes then?
» Back when I was a pilot, there was no such thing as protective gear – mostly due to the fact that laser strikes weren’t recognised to be a threat back then. Today, though, the most efficient way to protect pilots from the effects of a laser strike is to make transparent protective eyewear -with high colour fidelity - widely available to the pilots. «
– Any specific protective goggles you can recommend?
» To my knowledge, there are quite a few providers of protective eyewear. Most of the products available to the pilot community are dye-based eyewear, and this can cause a safety concern when interpreting the instruments and runway lights. «
– You say that the new generation of protective eyewear is unique – in what way?
» Well, the problem with the previous generation of protective eyewear is that they slightly disturbed the pilot’s vision and interpretation of the surrounding environment – ironically, due to their anti-laser capabilities. «
» Solutions are soon to be released, being developed using a brand new patented technology; a so-called dielectric optical metamaterial filter. This makes it unique and superior to other products currently on the market and ensures that the pilot’s vision is not disturbed by wearing the eyewear. «
– What’s your reply to the people that may not perceive laser strikes on aircraft as a “serious” danger or issue?
» With lasers becoming more powerful and widely available, I think now is the time for airlines to take proactive measures to prevent a potential catastrophe. The incremental costs for airlines and pilots being grounded and losing their license, schedule disruptions and the like are bad enough. «
» The legislation is in place in many countries around the world, criminalising the people who use lasers on aircraft. So the only thing missing, in my eyes, is making protective equipment available to pilots. «
– Let’s keep that instigation as the last word for now. Thanks for taking the time to share your story, Kasper.
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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.