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Singapore News: Ron Bartsch discussing Laser Pointers

Rising number of aircraft hit by laser lights sparks safety concerns

SINGAPORE: There has been an increasing number of incidences of laser lights, such as laser pointers, being shone at aircraft landing and taking off at Changi Airport in recent years, raising safety concerns.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) said laser lights beamed at aircraft can distract pilots and compromise aviation safety.

Changi Airport handled nearly 344,000 landings and take-offs last year. With such heavy air traffic volume, aircraft safety is a key concern.

CAAS said there were five reported incidents of laser lights being shone at aircraft in 2009, and this increased ninefold to 45 in 2012.

While the number of incidents declined to 25 in 2013, there have already been 16 incidents in just the first quarter of this year alone.

CAAS attributes the increase in such incidents to more affordable and widespread use of handheld lasers.

“These reports are getting more and more frequent,” said Peter Rabot, head of air navigation services at the safety and security branch of CAAS.

“As a result of which, we feel that it is time for the public to be made aware of the dangers that are associated with shining such a light at an aircraft, and to seek their cooperation in not only not operating such lights but also to prevent others from operating by educating those who are seen to be doing it.”

It is hard to believe that a simple instrument such as a laser pointer can pose a danger to aircraft but experts say that depending on the power and intensity, light from a laser pointer can be seen as far as one kilometre away.

Incidents of laser lights beamed at aircraft usually happen at night.

More powerful handheld lasers can reach aircraft, especially during landing or taking off. The laser can cause pulsating light bursts in the cockpit, filling it with bright light and blinding the pilot.

“Yes, I’ve been on an approach on an airport in Sydney and was affected by a laser beam on one occasion — very strong light,” said Ron Bartsch, an experienced pilot and managing director of Avlaw Aviation Consulting.

“If you’re a single pilot, you’re alternating between scanning the instruments and looking at the visual approach so if you’re looking up and it does affect you in the eye, it makes it very difficult to make that transition back down to the instruments because of the variants in light intensity within the flight deck.”

Paul Yap, course manager of Aviation Management and Services at Temasek Polytechnic, said: “The first thing they need to do is to be able to regain their vision, to look away from the object that’s causing the distraction or the glare.

“Airline pilots basically fly non-visual, instrument flying. Of course, during critical phase of flight like landing and take-off, pilots like to be able to see. However, in instances like this where they are not able to see, they go back to basics, ‘ok, fly the plane, follow my instruments’.”

Aviation experts believe the likelihood of such incidents leading to an accident is remote, but CAAS is not taking any chances.

Residents living near airports have been sent advisories on the dangers of shining laser lights at aircraft.