Saturday, 26 April 2014

Laser lights a growing hazard for planes

By Karamjit Kaur, The Straits Times, 25 Apr 2014

PILOTS are becoming increasingly concerned about laser lights being flashed at planes flying in and out of Changi Airport.

Though they can appear harmless, laser pointers have the potential to cause temporary blindness, which is particularly dangerous as pilots take off and land.

Between January and March, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) received 16 reports of laser lights being flashed here, compared with 25 for the whole of last year. In 2012, there were 45 incidents reported.

The authority has launched a public awareness campaign, targeting households in the east, a spokesman told The Straits Times yesterday. About 76,000 circulars have been distributed in the last few weeks.

There are also regular enforcement patrols in the area, including East Coast beach.

The spokesman said: "A laser light shone into an aircraft cockpit could cause discomfort, distract or even confuse the pilots."

This could endanger the flight, as well as people on board and on the ground, especially during the critical phases of landing and take-off.

Commonly used during meetings or presentations, laser pointers emit red, green or blue light.

The use of the pen-like battery-operated devices is regulated by the National Environment Agency (NEA) and classified based on their beam power output.

Licences are required to import, possess and use very powerful lasers. But even less powerful laser pointers can be dangerous if used wrongly, the NEA says on its website.

"Even at a very low power of 5 milliwatts (mW), when the laser is aimed directly at the eye, it will cause temporary flash blindness," it adds.

"A split-second brief exposure from such lasers is not likely to cause permanent injury immediately because the eye will blink and move to avoid the beam, but it can lead to visual loss in later years."

Captain Mok Hin Choon, president of the Air Line Pilots Association-Singapore, said: "People playing around with laser lights is becoming a problem here. I myself have not experienced it but we have had reports from other pilots who have. Such cases are immediately reported to the management and civil aviation authority."

The danger is especially acute during landing, he said.

"When we take off, we don't face the ground, so it's not so bad. But during landing, when your eyes are on the ground and laser lights are flashing, it is dangerous. I don't believe we have had any serious incidents or close shaves, but it is a potential hazard that needs to be addressed before something serious happens."

In its circular to households, the CAAS noted that Changi is a busy international airport which handled a record 53.7 million passengers and 343,800 landings and take-offs last year. Ensuring safe aircraft operations is therefore of utmost importance, it said.

"In the interest of flight and public safety, CAAS is seeking the understanding and cooperation of all to refrain from shining laser lights at aircraft and to advise any persons involved in such an act to stop," said the spokesman.

The public circular also warns that under the Singapore Air Navigation Order, first-time offenders can be fined up to $20,000.

In case of a subsequent conviction, offenders face a maximum penalty of a $40,000 fine and a jail term of up to 15 months.

So far, no one has been prosecuted, The Straits Times understands.

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