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Can someone on the ground really endanger an aircraft using a laser pointer?

I always hear about people endangering airliners using laser pointers from the ground. How in the world would that work? Aren't the cockpit windows at an inaccessible angle and the plane moving too fast to maintain a beam for a significant amount of time? Aren't the lumens way too low?
Chris CharalambousChris Charalambous, Boeing 757/767 pilot based out... (more)
5.2k upvotes by Derek Schatz, Quora User, Kyle Gracey, (more)
I had a green laser pointed at me taking off from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia just 3 days ago.

I saw that someone was pointing a laser from a distance and quickly made sure I was not looking straight at it when the person finally hit the cockpit window. I did what I could to avoid it but it definitely distracted me at a critical phase of flight as I was still hand flying the plane.

Fortunately in this instance it did not hit my eyes but I have been accidentally hit with a red laser previously which did not do much and my vision is still just fine. I can imagine however that prolonged exposure directly into the eye could cause damage or at least temporary loss of night vision or perhaps the ability to see colours.

I immediately notified Air Traffic Control but I am sure nothing was done about it due to the geographic location and their carelessness. One simply has to get in a taxi there to see that the general population are not safety minded.

Anyone doing this should be shot in my opinion and should seriously think of the possible damage they could cause. They are putting several hundred people's lives at risk or at the very least they are jeopardising a pilot's career just because they feel that it is funny. I would like to see them driving down a dark road at night and have someone point a laser straight into their eyes and see if they still think it is funny.

I downvoted one of the answers here as they said the question was 'imbecilic' which it is not. (That answer has since been deleted) I believe that it is important to ask such questions so that people understand the seriousness of this act. There is no such thing as a stupid question, just stupid people. And by answering such questions we help solve this problem.
Casey HandmerCasey Handmer
104 upvotes by Paul Tomblin (Licensed private pilot. PP-ASEL-IA with high pe... (more) ), Tom Farrier (Retired US Air Force command pilot; Current avi... (more) ), Quora User, (more)
Yes, it's very dangerous. When pilots fly at night, they fly in a dark cockpit so their night vision is most sensitive. The laser can easily dazzle the pilot, and possibly permanently harm their vision (and thus their livelihood).

I have been lasered while flying at night. Fortunately (for me) it hit my CFI much more than me, and fortunately we were both okay. If we were both dazzled we could have been in serious trouble. We were close to the ground and the plane doesn't have any ability to fly itself.

The only possible exception in my mind is, in an emergency in a remote area, using a laser as a distress beacon at aircraft at cruising altitude. At that distance the beam wouldn't dazzle anyone who saw it.
John HodgeJohn Hodge, Would run outside as a kid to ... (more)
58 upvotes by Eric Nelson, Quora User, Anne L. Hogue-Boucher, (more)
In addition to possibly harming the pilot and causing him or her to lose vision or focus during landing, potentially leading to a crash, you can go to jail for quite a while in the United States if caught doing so.

Don't even consider shining a laser at a flying aircraft.

Additonal Info:
NEVER aim laser pointers at aircraft

Man who pointed laser at aircraft lands a 30-month prison sentence

Man gets 14 years for pointing laser at helicopter

Cliff GilleyCliff Gilley, Technologist, Problem Solver, ... (more)
167 upvotes by Anonymous, Quora User, Quora User, (more)
Here's an example of what a laser pointer looks like when it hits the cockpit window of an airplane:

Example from a Canadian government site (photoshopped). [1]

Example from FBI website. [2]

Photo from a news story involving a French plane. [3]

Safety/distance chart illustrating the different levels of distraction caused by a green laser at various distances. [4]

As you can see, that's more than just a mild distraction for a pilot who's attempting to land a plane with hundreds of passengers onboard.




Lukas EderLukas Eder, Java, SQL, and jOOQ enthusiast
EDIT: It appears that the question was changed to ask for the technical effect of what happens. My answer replied to a more general question.

What happens? Well, you will rightfully go to jail for a while. For instance:

Man who pointed laser at aircraft lands a 30-month prison sentence

In my opinion, that sentence was a bit low. Attempted mass homicide should get you locked up for much longer. Because mass homicide is what you're effectively trying to do when you point a laser at an aircraft. You're wantonly trying to get the pilot to crash it and kill between 50-800 people. More like this:

Man gets 14 years for pointing laser at helicopter

(although, that's probably a bit at the upper end of a severe sentence)
Tom FarrierTom Farrier, Retired US Air Force command p... (more)
About fifteen years ago this problem really began to get attention as a number of businesses wishing to create buzz about things happening at their location took to using lasers the way searchlights used to be used starting after World War II -- indiscrimately sweeping the skies, but now with neat colors and effects to go along with the illumination. 
A government-industry group highlighted one of the big problems, namely, that two Federal agencies had very different perspectives on laser safety.  While the FAA is responsible for the safety of the skies, the Food and Drug Administration regulates lasers.  FDA compromised a bit with their standards -- and a lot more with the warnings they issue on their equipment labels -- but the fact remains that it's easy to buy a laser that puts out visible energy all out of proportion to what should be needed by 99.9% of casual users. 
This is similar to a number of other areas currently at issue in the overall field of aviation safety: 20th century rules that don't reflect the hazards that 21st century technology can create.  For example, Congress was persuaded to pass a law (Page on Faa, Section 336) saying the FAA can't write rules regarding how model aircraft are operated, even when those "models" in no way resemble other aircraft and their sole purpose is to put a camera in the sky.  In other words, two unmanned aircraft may be indistinguishable, but Congress says that while both could present identical hazards or have the same potential to intrude on someone's privacy, the intent of the pilot is what matters in deciding whether the FAA has the power to regulate it.  Just say, "no, no, I'm a hobbyist," and the FAA can't touch you unless you're overtly violating current safety or operating rules.  Mindless.
Paul TomblinPaul Tomblin, Licensed private pilot. PP-ASE... (more)
Nobody has ever pointed a laser pointer at me when I was flying, but even catching a glimpse of the laser scanner in the supermarket will give me a blinding headache that lasts for hours. If I were landing a plane when that happened I could easily lose the ability to judge the landing flare and damage the plane or my passengers.
Sandeep VenkataramaniSandeep Venkataramani, Social Vegan.I avoid meet.
14 upvotes by Tom Farrier (Retired US Air Force command pilot; Current avi... (more) ), Nico Snyman, William Mccleary, (more)
As a Navigating officer, I have been lasered inside the Gulf Of Hormuz during a critical maneuver of a Ultra Large Crude Carrier by a fishing boat trying to warn me about his fishing net. I got disoriented for a few minutes but luckily no other traffic close by meant we got out safely. People should be educated of the possible consequences.
Andre Sebastian MorenoAndre Sebastian Moreno
8 upvotes by Tom Farrier (Retired US Air Force command pilot; Current avi... (more) ), Brenda Mayer, Julie Garrou, (more)
In the United States this is a Federal felony, and you can go to jail for up to five years(and probably a hefty fine too, in addition to state charges). As I have heard of people on the ground, even in their own homes, being caught doing this, I would guess they have some sort of laser direction finding equipment, possibly on board the aircraft.

U.S.: Illegal to aim laser pointer beams at aircraft or their flight path

[The language below was signed into law by the President on February 14 2012. We are presenting it as it appears in the United States Code, which lists U.S. laws.]

Sec. 39A.
Aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft
        (a) OFFENSE -- Whoever knowingly aims the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, or at the flight path of such an aircraft, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.
        (b) LASER POINTER DEFINED -- As used in this section, the term `laser pointer' means any device designed or used to amplify electromagnetic radiation by stimulated emission that emits a beam designed to be used by the operator as a pointer or highlighter to indicate, mark, or identify a specific position, place, item, or object.
        (c) EXCEPTIONS -- This section does not prohibit aiming a beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft, or the flight path of such an aircraft, by--
            (1) an authorized individual in the conduct of research and development or flight test operations conducted by an aircraft manufacturer, the Federal Aviation Administration, or any other person authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct such research and development or flight test operations;
            (2) members or elements of the Department of Defense or Department of Homeland Security acting in an official capacity for the purpose of research, development, operations, testing or training; or
            (3) by an individual using a laser emergency signaling device to send an emergency distress signal.
        (d) The Attorney General, in consultation with the Secretary of Transportation, may provide by regulation, after public notice and comment, such additional exceptions to this section, as may be necessary and appropriate. The Attorney General shall provide written notification of any proposed regulations under this section to the Committees on the Judiciary of the House and Senate, the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in the House, and the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in the Senate not less than 90 days before such regulations become final.

112th Congress, 2011-2012 HR 386. Introduced January 20 2011.
See this page for updates. Passed as Section 311 of H.R. 658, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, signed into law by the President on February 14 2012.111th Congress, 2009-2010 HR 5810. Passed by the House of Representatives July 27 2010. Sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Died in committee.110th Congress, 2007-2008 HR 1615. Passed by the House May 22 2007. Was not voted on by the Senate109th Congress, 2005-2006 HR 1400. Passed by the House Dec. 8 2005. Passed by the Senate Dec. 22 2005. No House-Senate conference, expired before it could be sent to the President
Eric LivingstonEric Livingston
4 upvotes by Cliff Gilley, Anonymous, Marc Bodnick, (more)
Cliff provided some great data above - lasers that appear as a pin point near the source amplify at a certain distance away from the source.  As you can see from Cliff's pictures, its not just an annoying dot in the distance, but at the right altitude can be absolutely blinding in the cockpit.  Then you not only have the light when it is shining to be concerned about, but also the loss of night vision after it stops as your eyes readjust to the dark.

For what its worth, the FBI considers this possible terrorism and takes these reports with the corresponding level of seriousness.
Vaibhav ManchandaVaibhav Manchanda, Aircrafts, Sweet balls of fire.
389 upvotes by Tom Farrier (Retired US Air Force command pilot; Current avi... (more) ), Nagendran Raja, Tim Hibbetts, (more)
The photo below shows a 1 milliwatt beam seen at a distance of 20 kilometers. These'll answer your doubt.

Thomas WeenkThomas Weenk, Licensed pilot, glider pilot
6 upvotes by Tom Farrier, Marc Bodnick, Paul Tomblin, (more)
Light from a laser can cause fixation in a pilot, causing him/her to fly towards the light of the laser. It also causes temporary blindness and it also just distracts the pilot.
James K. DurdenJames K. Durden, MD-11 First Officer for FedEx ... (more)
Simple answer - it's dangerous, distracting and unsafe.  It's not a joke, it's not fun., it's a crime.  A local man lasered a helicopter and got prison time and a hefty fine.
Yes, it is dangerous.  If a laser is pointed at a plane, it can shine into the pilots' eyes which can blind them for a significant period of time, perhaps even cause permanent damage to their eyes.  This will put the entire plane into danger.  It is also a CRIMINAL OFFENCE to shine a laser at a plane, so don't do it!
As the other answers indicate, yes, it is dangerous.

Smart phones use infra-red cut-off filters to reduce the impact of infra-red light on the photographs taken by smart phone camera devices.  They basically filter out light on a certain part of the spectrum. I wonder if a similar device might be effective in protecting pilots and others from laser pointers...
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