- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 2004

Laser light has pierced the cockpits of six commercial airplanes in the past four days, and federal investigators are trying to determine whether terrorists are targeting aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration has reported several hundred incidents of laser lights beamed into cockpits in recent years, but a sudden increase has raised alarm.

The cockpit of a Continental Airlines Boeing 737 was illuminated by green light as it approached Cleveland at about 8 p.m. Monday, as the plane was flying at an altitude of 8,500 feet to 10,000 feet, about 15 miles from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. The laser light appeared to have come from Warrensville Heights, a suburb.

The FBI said the laser did not affect the pilot’s ability to land the plane.

FBI spokesman William Carter said investigators are trying to determine whether people are playing with lasers or whether the incidents are deliberate attempts by terrorists to disrupt pilots’ ability to maneuver aircraft.

He said there is no evidence of terrorist activity or of intent to use lasers as weapons, but that terror groups have discussed such methods.

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security sent an intelligence bulletin to law-enforcement agencies last month to alert them that terrorist groups have discussed using laser beams to disrupt pilots and cause plane crashes.

Five similar incidents have been reported in the past four days. Investigators are looking into reports that lasers were flashed into the cockpits of two flights in Colorado Springs and three other unidentified flights.

It is a federal felony to interfere with flight crews.

“Our concern is about damage to the eyes of the flight crew,” FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said.

Laser light never has caused a plane to crash, but “the potential for an aviation accident definitely exists,” the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute reported in June.

The cockpit of a fast-moving plane is not an easy target, said Pete Janhunen, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, the union representing pilots.

“It would be difficult” to strike a cockpit with a laser, he said, “but it’s a threat we need to study.”

Even low levels of laser light can impair a pilot’s vision, the medical institute’s report said.

The pilot of a Skywest Airlines flight suffered multiple burns to his right cornea while approaching Los Angeles International Airport in November 1996. On the final approach, the pilot relinquished control of the plane to the co-pilot.

In 1995, the first officer of a Southwest Airlines flight from Las Vegas to San Antonio was temporarily blinded by laser light, and the incident persuaded the FAA to ban the outdoor use of lasers in Las Vegas.

In September, a Delta Air Lines pilot reported damage to his retina from a laser beam. The pilot was guiding a Boeing 737 into Salt Lake City International Airport. The flight landed safely, but the plane’s first officer later felt stinging in one eye and was diagnosed with a burned retina.

“We continue to treat that like an anomaly,” Mr. Janhunen said. “But who knows?”

Low-level laser light can temporarily blur a pilot’s vision and make it difficult to land an aircraft, the FAA report concluded, but a strong laser could blind a crew member and make it virtually impossible to land a plane.

Pilots are most vulnerable to the effects of laser light during approach, landing, departure maneuvers and takeoff, the 2004 report concluded.

“Aviators conducting low-level flight operations at night are particularly vulnerable to accidental or malicious laser illumination,” the report said.

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