Laser strikes on pilots may not cause permanent eye damage, study finds

Pointing a laser beam may cause temporary blindness, but a University of Calgary study of 64 incidents finds no long-term damage or scarring to pilots' eyes.

But widespread access to laser pointers still a threat to plane safety, researcher says

In a study of 64 separate incidents, Dr. Michael Fielden found no evidence of any permanent scarring or vision loss in pilots who experienced a laser strike. (Cumming School of Medicine)

Pointing a laser beam at an airplane may be dangerous, but it may not cause any long-term damage to the pilot's eyes, according to a new study by the University of Calgary. 

The results are based on medical examinations of 58 male and three female pilots shortly after they experienced a laser incident some time between between April 2012 and November 2014.

Laser strikes on aircraft are a growing problem, according to Transport Canada. The department recorded 502 incidents in 2014, up 43 per cent from 2012

Laser exposure causes temporary blindness

"Many of [the pilots] are quite scared when it first happens, and that's understandable," said lead researcher Dr. Michael Fielden, an assistant clinical professor at the University of Calgary's Cumming School of Medicine who is also an ophthalmologist for pilots of a major Canadian airline.

"It blinds them momentarily. Their eyes become blurry temporarily, and that startling of them could cause them to have some issues landing the plane," he said.

"Once their eyes settle down, they're worried if there's any permanent damage that could affect their ability to fly in the future. Fortunately we haven't found any permanent damage."

The pilots involved in the study were sent to Dr. Fielden by their airline as part of the company's safety policy. 

Dr. Fielden declined to disclose the name of the airline, but said there's no need for this kind of precaution now that pilots can easily assess their own eyes with specially designed tests. 

Researcher recommends limits on public laser access

While pilots can breathe a sigh of relief, Dr. Fielden maintains the act of pointing lasers at planes is still very dangerous, and that shining a laser into the eye from close range can cause serious vision damage. 

"Fortunately there's never been any aviation accident from this, but we never want that to happen," he said. 

The first step to reduce the number of laser incidents is to crack down on public access to laser pointers, according to Dr. Fielden.

"Pilots are not allowed to fly until their eyes are examined, so that's multiple days off work," he said. 

"And if the pilot is in Mexico, suddenly the plane is stuck in Mexico and requires another pilot flown down there, so there's big delays for these airlines."

Results of the University of Calgary study were published in the December 2015 edition of the Canadian Journal of Ophthalmology.

with files from Falice Chin


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