A pilot flying a Delta Air Lines jet was injured by a laser that illuminated the cockpit of the aircraft as it approached Salt Lake City International Airport last week, U.S. officials said.
The plane’s two pilots reported that the Boeing 737 had been five miles from the airport when they saw a laser beam inside the cockpit, said officials familiar with government reports of the Sept. 22 incident. The flight, which originated in Dallas, landed without further incident at about 9:30 p.m. local time.
A short while later, however, the first officer felt a stinging sensation in one eye. A doctor who examined the pilot determined that he had suffered a burned retina from exposure to a laser device, the officials said.
Transportation Security Administration (TSA) spokeswoman Yolanda Clark confirmed the incident, but declined to provide details.
“TSA is aware of the incident, and we are working with the airline in conducting an investigation to try and determine the cause of the incident,” Miss Clark said.
She would not say whether TSA considers the incident a possible security threat to commercial aircraft. Other officials said the incident was serious enough that the pilot will be unable to fly for at least a week.
“So far, it doesn’t sound like there will be permanent [eye] damage,” one official said.
The identity of the pilot could not be learned, and Delta spokesman Anthony Black declined to comment.
Officials were unsure of the source of the laser and could not determine whether the exposure was deliberate or accidental.
John Mazor, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, said commercial pilots have been exposed to laser illumination.
“The Air Line Pilots Association has received reports in the past of incidents where lasers penetrated cockpits and, in at least one case, caused injury,” Mr. Mazor said.
Several years ago, a pilot flying into a Western airport was hit by a light from a laser light show. The causes of the other incidents are not known, he said.
Asked whether a laser aimed at pilots could cause a plane to crash, Mr. Mazor said: “I think that’s highly improbable. In every case in the past, the flights landed safely.”
Military personnel also have suffered eye damage from laser illumination.
In one case, Naval Lt. Cmdr. Jack Daly and Canadian helicopter pilot Capt. Pat Barnes suffered eye injuries hours after an aerial surveillance mission to photograph a Russian merchant ship that had been shadowing the ballistic-missile submarine USS Ohio in Washington state’s Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The Navy recently turned down an appeal from the Defense Department inspector general to award Cmdr. Daly a Purple Heart for the incident. Cmdr. Daly, who retired from the service last year, continues to suffer eye pain and deteriorating vision.
During congressional testimony in 1999, he warned of laser threats to pilots.
“Numerous documented cases regarding the use of lasers against aircraft, civilians and military personnel exist, as well as does an all-too-lengthy list of the injuries that have resulted from the accidental and intentional misuse of these devices,” Cmdr. Daly told a House Armed Services subcommittee.
He noted that incidents of lasers being directed at commercial airliners during takeoff and landings have raised fears that “this in fact may be a new form of terrorism.”
“Lasers are easily obtainable and can be self-manufactured weapons in the terrorist arsenal, which essentially can effect a soft-kill solution and leave virtually no detectable evidence,” he said.