There are any number of directions one can point a laser pointer in, but you might want to avoid doing so in the direction of the night sky.
That’s because such devices can jeopardize aircraft safety, particularly if the light manages to reach the cockpit of a plane.
Three airplanes travelling to St. John’s reported coming in contact with laser light during the early hours of May 17. According to separate Transport Canada reports documented in the Civil Aviation Daily Occurrence Reporting System (CADORS), local authorities were advised in all cases.
“What happens when you’re hit with a laser light? It’s a very intense light that can cause temporary blindness or disorientation of airline pilots,” explains Greg Holbrook, director of operations for the Canadian Federal Pilots Association, a group representing professional pilots employed federally.
“It comes up no notice, and should it occur at a very inopportune moment, it could affect the safety of the flight.”
Holbrook suspects the public is largely unaware of this issue.
“They treat it like it’s fun to go light things up. When you do that with an aircraft, you could potentially cause a major accident, and it’s a very dangerous thing to do.”
Transport Canada reported 443 incidents involving lasers in 2013, and information on CADORS indicates there have been 130 incidents reported since the beginning of 2014 involving lasers.
Under the federal Aeronautics Act, a person convicted of pointing a laser into an aircraft cockpit can face a fine of up to $100,000 and receive a five-year prison sentence.
In 2012, a man in Calgary was sentenced to six months of house arrest for using a laser pointer on a police helicopter. Another man in Calgary was fined $5,000 in 2011 for sending beams of light into two cockpits.
“Police forces are all aware of it and they will prosecute anybody caught doing this,” said Holbrook.
According to Holbrook, such incidents have become more commonplace with hand-held laser pointers readily available to consumers, though it may prove difficult tracking down the source of the light.
The Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA) is the world’s largest pilot union, representing 51,000 pilots in the United States and Canada. This week, it expanded a campaign in collaboration with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Federal Aviation Administration to raise public awareness about the harm laser pointers can cause.
Since launching that campaign at 12 FBI field offices earlier this year, reported incidents in those areas have decreased on average by 19 per cent compared to 2013.
Rewards are offered to people providing information that leads to an arrest. That reward offer is now available across the United States.
“Much like Canada, it’s a very serious (issue), because the numbers keep on increasing,” said Sean Cassidy, a commercial airline pilot who is also ALPA’s first vice-president and national safety co-ordinator.
In 2013, there were almost 4,000 reported incidents involving laser strikes in the United States — an 1,100 per cent increase over the figure reported in 2005, according to Cassidy.
“If we keep on seeing these rates continue to climb, then what happens is more and more of our air crew and other pilots flying around the air system are basically put in harm’s way by having these things shine into flight decks.”
Transport Canada has published information on its website about the safe use of laser pointers.
It notes that anyone planning to project a directed bright light into the sky for a specific purpose must submit a proposal to the department.