Last week, six planes coming in to land at Sydney airport have had green lasers pointed at their cockpits in what seems to be a coordinated attack, in which three or four different lasers were pointed at airplanes landing at that airport.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the attack was bad enough that they closed the runway, leading to flight delays.

This, however wasn’t the only such attack: another attack at Darwin airport occured, and yesterday, another plane flying into Sydney was attacked.

There have been previous reports of police helicopters being targeted in a similar manner in western Australia, and both commercial and private planes have been targeted.

Airline pilots are demanding action, noting that there is an average of one laser attack per day in airports around Australia.

The Australian government is now considering whether to ban laser pointers in order to stop these dangerous incidents.

The problem of lasers being pointed at airplanes either deliberatly or accidentally was in the US news a few years ago, but the attacks were scattered, and the ones arrested seemed to be pranksters rather than terrorists, despite an FAA advisery that terrorists were seeking to use lasers to bring down airplanes.

These attacks can be serious, since they can startle or blind pilots during the critical landing phase of flight. And it is significant that the lasers reported were green, not the usual red lasers that we see used as pointers in lectures.

You see, any bright light can lead to a “flash” and afterimage.

But the retina is most sensitive to damage after being hit by a green laser, as this illustration from Rockwell Laser Industry website shows.

The article notes that such lasers are often imported from Russia or China and may not be properly labled as hazardous to the eye.

Laser injuries in the military, where lasers are used to aim guns, are well known and difficult to treat. A 2004 report on 34 pilots showed that 67% had termporary problems, and the incidents resulted in 9 aborted landings.

Lasers have been used for years to aim guns etc. in the military, and

Treatment is, alas, not very good. Essentially, it burns the eye, both the clear coating in front of the eye (cornea), but also, since the lens of the eye focuses light, the laser will burn the back of the eye similar to a kid burning a leaf with a magnifying glass. The result can be permanent loss of sight (usually blind spots) in the area injured.

We docs use lasers to “zap”  dangerous blood vessels in the retina so they don’t bleed and cause blindness, and we also use lasers to “weld” the retina that is tearing off it’s base in retinal hemorrhage.

Because burns of the cornea and retina are so hard to treat, the main emphasis is prevention.

So the Army has promoted various protective glasses to protect the troops from shrapnel, excess light, and dust but also from laser battle hazards. Since various lasers are at different frequencies, this makes the choice of lens more complicated, but multi frequency laser protection is being made available. The Air Force is even looking into Laser protective contact lenses.

All of this brings up several questions:

Will commercial pilots be given specialized lenses to protect them from this hazard?

If there are over 300 laser incidents a year in Australia, one wonders how often this occurs in the much larger United States.

And finally, the big one:

(psst…could it be terrorism?)


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket. 

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