Laser attacks on aircraft: Shining the light on public attitude

Dale Richards, Jamie Carroll

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


    Laser attacks on aircraft have been on record since the mid 1990’s (Nakagawara & Montgomery, 2001), however official reporting of laser incidents really only began in the mid 2000’s. Reported incidents since then have increased worldwide; in the United States alone the number of recorded incidents has risen from 311 in 2005 to 7,442 in 2016 (Murphy, 2017b), representing an astounding 2293% increase. Worse yet, in the United Kingdom laser attacks have risen by 4093% since 2007. According to Eurocontrol (2011), 30 instances occurred in 2007, while 1,258 laser attacks were reported in 2016 (Landells, 2017; The Guardian, 2017). The British Airline Pilots Association, claims that 55% of member pilots experienced a laser attack in 2015, while 4% suffered 6 or more attacks (BALPA, 2017). Many governments and aviation authorities have implemented some form of strategy in an attempt to reduce the number of laser attacks on aircraft. The industry has, thus far, been unable to effectively counteract the increasing number of laser attacks. A brief overview of the literature surrounding these events reveals a predominant focus on the physiological effect of a laser attack and its implications on safety (Houston, 2011; Nakagawara & Montgomery, 2001; Nakagawara et al., 2004; Nakagawara, Wood, & Montgomery, 2008). Very little research has been conducted as to the nature of public attitude to such attacks, or to understand the perception of regulatory and legal implications that are associated with laser attacks. Legitimate application of laser pens spans a number of different applications, from traditional pointers in classrooms to spirit levels or even pet toys (Nakagawara & Montgomery, 2001). These laser pointers can be categorised according to their power output; with those below 1 milliwatt (mW) being legally available in the public domain. Pointers that are greater than 1mW have been labeled as not appropriate for general consumers as they have the potential to cause injury (Public Health England, 2014). Some countries, such as New Zealand, have taken steps to prohibit the sale of pointers >1mW due to the potential risk they pose to public safety (Weekes, 2016). However, a quick online search will offer the purchase of much greater power pointers for relatively low prices, and it is predicted that the availability of these items is set to increase (Palakkamanil & Fielden, 2015). It is of no surprise then that we hear of incidents whereby a laser has been directed to another individual or aircraft in a malicious manner. The aviation industry has recognised the increase in such incidents by putting in place the means by which such incidents may be reported - as per the FAA Circular 70-2 (FAA, 2005; Savage, 2013). This directive states that it is mandatory for pilots (and Air Traffic Controllers) to report all laser incidents. It has been suggested that the rise in such attacks are directly attributed to the increased availability, lower cost and increasing power of handgeld lasers (DeMik et al., 2013; Elias, 2005; Nakagawara, Wood, & Montgomery, 2010; Palakkamanil & Fielden, 2015). To some it may be surprising that something as benign as a beam of light can have such an impact on the safe operation of aircraft, apart form the obvious distraction and potential discomfort that the effect this may have in the cockpit. However, When a laser beam ‘hits’ the cockpit glass, the special coatings used in the production of the glass, combined with imperfections and pitting in the glass, may cause the beam to scatter and generate secondary and tertiary beams to the extent that it may be unavoidable by the flight deck crew (D'Andrea & Knepton, 1989; Marshall, O'Hagan, & Tyrer, 2016; Murphy, 2017). Further to this the physiological anomalies that may be caused by this visual attack can lead to obscuring key aspects of the visual field (through glare), create an illusion of blindness specific to an area of the retina (flash blindness), and visual anomalies that can persist following the event (afterimages). Clearly these physiological effects can pose a significant threat to safety which may contribute to an accident, and more so dependent on which phase of flight the aircraft is in when the incident takes place. On October 10 2017 a police helicopter was flying towards an incident in the skies of Leicestershire, UK. The twin engine Eurocopter EC135, with a crew of three, were passing over some residential gardens when a laser pen was shone directly into the cockpit. The light immediately blinded the pilot who had to turn his head away from the source and turn the aircraft away from the light. Police Officers were directed to the address and arrested the perpertrator who readily not only admitted his guilt but confessed to the "stupidity" of his actions (Leicester Mercury, 2017). Unfortunately this is not an isolated incident, but rather underlines the opportunistic nature of such attacks and the somewhat disconnected consequence that individuals sometimes show when confronted with their actions. This paper will discuss a study conducted that investigated the perception of laser attacks, whilst assessing the associated public attitudes toward such attacks, and finally to investigate attitudes towards regulation and punishment for laser offences. A total of 209 participants completed an online survey that assessed the above issues. The survey was constructed of four sections, including : (1) Biographical data, (2) Knowledge of laser attacks, (3) Attitude towards laser attacks, and (4) Attitudes to regulation and punishment of offenders. Results of the survey suggested that there are several factors which may influence the level of knowledge an individual holds pertaining to laser attacks. We separated participants in terms of being part of the aviation industry (n=79) or not (n=129). Indeed, 21% of aviation participants reported being directly involved in a laser incident themselves. The professional training which aviation professionals receive, has almost certainly increased awareness and knowledge of laser attacks within this group when compared to non aviation sector post holders. those aged 21-30 were found to have less knowledge than those in the older age categories. They were also found to be less favourable towards the idea of implementing restrictions on the sale/import of laser pointers. Judging by media reports, this category, and those in their early 30s, seem to constitute a large proportion of those caught and punished for laser attacks. A number of comments made by participants indicate that it is often the perception that this age group (and younger) are responsible for many of the laser attacks. It is a recommendation of this paper that any educational campaigns be started with these groups of young people. Frequent flyers had a higher level of knowledge than those who did not fly often. So too did male respondents, they were reported to have a significantly higher knowledge of laser attacks than females. While the majority of people apprehended for laser attacks have been male, it is not unheard of (nor unlikely) for females to be responsible for committing such a crime. Typically, those caught for laser attacks have argued no knowledge of the potential for disaster, nor the illegalities of their actions. Otherwise law abiding citizens may find themselves imprisoned. Participants in general had strong negative attitudes toward laser attacks, despite 24% not knowing what laser attacks were and a moderate overall level of knowledge about the issue. This could be the result of the question wording, laser ‘attack’ may have influenced participants attitude, particularly of those who did not know what a laser attack was. The behavioural component of this survey was measured overtly by asking the participant how likely they were to report a laser attack to a member of the cabin crew, in the event they became aware of it while travelling. Earlier it was stated that the stronger the attitude the more it likely affects behaviour. Consistent with many other attitudinal surveys, this statement holds true for attitudes toward laser attacks on aircraft; the stronger the (negative) attitude toward laser attacks, the more likely it would be reported. The participants of this study estimated that 244 laser attacks occurred last year in the UK. The actual figure was more than 5 times that at 1258. It could be argued that a duty of care exists on authorities to educate the public on the frequency and consequences of such actions. Assuming the majority of laser attacks are done without malicious intent, increasing the public's knowledge may lead to a meaningful reduction in the number of incidents occurring. Attitudes toward imprisonment shifted to being more agreeable when addressing the issue of repeat offenders. 74% of respondents agreed that a custodial sentence was appropriate. This result implies that participants feel that offenders should have learned from previous experience, and modified their behaviour accordingly. With regard to regulation, there was a general lack of enthusiasm for increased regulation. Some respondents were concerned that regulation may ‘impede our freedoms and liberties’, while others argued that age, power output and range should be controlled. Power output is already an established criteria for the manufacture and sales of laser pointers. Online retailers operating outside certain jurisdictions are under no obligation to comply with these regulations. Older participants took a stronger stance than most when addressing punitive issues. This demographic self reported knowledge level was low to moderate. The results indicated that generally speaking, the public hold low to moderate levels of knowledge and strong negative attitudes toward laser attacks. Laser attacks are clearly an important safety issue that is not going away (and likely continue to increase). Mitigating strategies presently in place do not appear to be having the desired effect, and if a discernible reduction of reported incidents is to ever be realized, then alternative ways and means to address the issue of laser attacks on aircraft are essential. Better understanding of public perception and attitudes to such attacks should be used to target education strategies and national campaigns.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages10
    Publication statusAccepted/In press - Jun 2018
    EventAIAA Aviation and Aeronautics Forum and Exposition - Hyatt Regency Atlanta, Atlanta, United States
    Duration: 25 Jun 201829 Jun 2018


    ConferenceAIAA Aviation and Aeronautics Forum and Exposition
    Abbreviated titleAIAA AVIATION 2018
    Country/TerritoryUnited States
    Internet address


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