Canada

Pilots worried about 'stupid hobby' of shining laser lights at planes

Transport Canada statistics regarding the number of reported incidents of lasers beam being pointed into the cockpits of airplanes have some Canadian pilots concerned the dangerous activity is becoming a growing trend.

Reported incidents hit 11-year high

Canadian pilots aren't happy these days about the increasing number of laser beams being pointed at their cockpits.

Transport Canada statistics regarding the number of reported incidents of lasers beam being pointed into the cockpits of airplanes have some pilots concerned the dangerous activity is becoming a growing trend.

"We don't want this to become a bigger hobby — a bigger, stupid hobby," said Serge Beaulieu, spokesman for the Air Canada Pilots Association.

Transport Canada's latest civil aviation daily occurrence reporting system reports show that 62 incidents of the bright lights being pointed into cockpits have been reported so far in 2008. Six of those incidents occurred at Montreal Trudeau International Airport in just the last week.

Several incidents have also been reported in Winnipeg, Calgary and Toronto.

According to the reporting system, a total of 101 laser beam incidents have been reported since 1997.

In 2007, Transport Canada received 21 reports of lasers being directed at airplanes. While in 2005, there were only three reported incidents.

Playing with safety

"We want to put people on notice that this is dangerous, not funny, and you're potentially playing with the safety of people," Beaulieu said.

Shining bright lights into the eyes of pilots can potentially be blinding, Beaulieu said, and it's especially of concern since many of the reported incidents have taken place during landings.

"When we're doing takeoff or landing in an airplane, it's quite a busy time and we want to be full-up dealing with the task at hand," he said. "It's no time to get some yahoo flashing laser lights in the flight deck."

The lasers that are being directed at planes at Trudeau appear to be coming from a location north of the airport, Beaulieu said.

Astronomers' beams could be issue

The lasers are likely the powerful green light beams used by astronomers that can travel several kilometres, said Andrew Fazekas, president of the Montreal branch of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

"It's so powerful that the beam travels many kilometres into the atmosphere and the end of this green laser actually looks like it touches the stars," Fazekas said. "They can cut through thick cardboards … You can light a match across the room just pointing this [type of] laser."

The powerful lasers are widely available and cost about $1,000, he said. Smaller ones can be purchased for as little as $80.

The number of reported incidents are increasingly becoming a safety concern, said Barry Wiszniowski, acting technical and safety division chair with the Air Canada Pilots Association.

"If it's a distraction during the most critical time of the flight where the pilot's being totally disoriented or temporarily visually impaired it could have catastrophic ramifications," Wiszniowski said.

Pilots are being told to look down and avoid making eye contact with the laser beam if one is being pointed into the cockpit, Wiszniowski said, and to report all incidents.

Retina damage possible

If pointed directly into a person's eyes, the lasers can cause permanent damage to the retina, which could jeopardize a pilot's career.

Beaulieu said the pilots association will be "pushing very, very hard" to make sure anyone caught pointing the lights at airplanes "are dealt with harshly."

Under the federal Aeronautics Act, people found guilty of shining lights at aircraft can be fined a maximum of $100,000 or face five years in prison.

Earlier this year, a 29-year-old Calgary resident became the first person in Canada to be charged with endangering a flight by shining a bright light into the cockpit.

He was fined $1,000 and ordered to forfeit his laser.

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