Weather conditions, crew responsiveness, incoming hazards and myriad meters, gauges and measurements. These are just a few of the things a pilot has to be wary of when flying an aircraft. A new concern is affecting Coast Guard pilots from Cape Cod, to Hawaii, from Puerto Rico to Seattle. Every air station in the Coast Guard is on the lookout for a simple beam of light.
In 2012, more Coast Guard flights were interrupted by laser strikes, than at any other point in its 223-year history. Laser pointers are being pointed skyward in record numbers; presenting a very real, very dangerous hazard to the men and women whose mission it is to save and protect those in distress. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, instances of laser strikes on aircraft have grown from 283 to 3,591 between 2005 and 2011, a 902 percent jump.
Lt. j.g. Ryan McCue, a pilot with Coast Guard Air Station Houston, has experienced this new safety threat twice.
The first time was after participating in a training exercise in Katy, Texas. McCue and his crew were on their way back to the air station when they were hit with a laser.
“It was one or two quick bursts, but it illuminated pretty much everything in the cockpit,” said McCue. “It definitely seemed like they were targeting the aircraft. It wasn’t an accident.”
A pilot is accountable for the safety of themselves, their crew and their aircraft. That can be a weighty responsibility for any conscientious Coast Guard crewman or any pilot, particularly because they operate in a turbulent and unpredictable environment. These concerns are compounded by the prospect of being temporarily blinded by a carelessly wielded laser pointer. This is another factor that McCue comes to terms with every time he prepares himself for another flight.
“Our normal operations take us far offshore. It’s not always the best weather out there and if there’s a cloud cover where we’re not getting a lot of moonlight, that’s inherently dangerous as is and that’s typical for us,” said McCue. “Anything that’s going to increase that danger, like being exposed to a laser light, can increase the risk exponentially and could cause the crew to come to a consensus to call it quits.”
On July 16, 2012, this worst case scenario was almost fully realized.
A Coast Guard crew from Air Station Savannah, Ga., was in the process of searching for two men whose 19-foot catamaran overturned four miles off the coast of Myrtle Beach. The aircrew was in the middle of their search when a laser strike caused enough added risk that they were forced to return to base. Fortunately, the two men, 49 and 50, found the strength to swim safely to shore.
Another laser-related instance on Sept. 12, 2012, created an incredibly dangerous environment for Coast Guard crews conducting training.
A helicopter and crew from Air Station North Bend, Ore., was hovering 75-feet above the waters of Depoe Bay, carrying out a training procedure with a Coast Guard boat crew when a laser shone through the cockpit. At such a precarious elevation and with hampered vision, the aircrew departed the scene and headed back to base. As the boat crew headed back to their station the laser followed them, continuing to harass them for much of their transit.
Aside from the dangers of distracted or blind flying, there is another immediate effect of laser strikes – crew exhaustion.
“It can be a big drain on the unit if we’re constantly being lasered,” said McCue. “When a crew gets lasered, they can’t fly again for 24 hours or until they can get in to see an eye doctor for an examination and are medically cleared. Meanwhile, another crew has to be woken up in the middle of the night to fill in. With only 17 people at our air station that can fly, it can take a serious toll on our mission effectiveness.”
The human eye has many jobs. In addition to perceiving light, it also tells the brain the difference between colors and perceives depth and distance, essential factors for pilots. It’s one of the most sensitive instruments in the cockpit of any aircraft and it’s also the one most negatively affected by laser strikes.
Dr. William Lipsky, a certified ophthalmologist and refractive surgeon in Houston, was taken aback by the rising trend in laser strikes.
“I was shocked,” said Lipsky. “I didn’t realize was how much of a major problem this was until I started to do some research. It’s a pretty stupid thing to do.”
Having served as a flight surgeon in the U.S. Navy for seven years and continuing to fly as a civilian, Lipsky understands the stresses and sympathizes with the pressures that come with being a pilot.
“The pilots who actually take the full brunt of it are momentarily disoriented,” said Lipsky. “The lasers are hitting when pilots eyes are dark adapted. That’s absolutely the worst time. Your retina has to recover, so you get flash blindness and that can last anywhere from a few seconds to many minutes, even overnight.”
Considering the ever-evolving environment in the air, those seconds or minutes of recovery might coincide with an event that requires the pilot’s immediate attention. Without the full use of his or her eyes, a tragic and ultimately avoidable event might occur.
But, with close to 3,700 laser strikes estimated for the year 2013, the Coast Guard isn’t the only entity being affected by laser strikes.
“If it flies, it’s been targeted,” said Lynn Lunsford, FAA spokesperson. “Hardly a night goes by in the U.S. that we don’t have three to five laser incidents, if not more, in all the major metropolitan areas. I saw several laser reports just last night. It’s something that happens every night somewhere in the country.”
It’s a threat the government takes very seriously. To dissuade the public from turning their lasers skyward, harsh civil penalties have been put in place, subjecting violators to up to five years in prison and fines of up to $11,000. With educational outreach operations underway, the FAA and Coast Guard believe that in most cases people just need to be made aware of the harm they’re doing and the precarious situations they’re creating thousands of feet above the earth.