Laser Pointers: Tool, Toy & Anti-Aircraft Weapon

faa-photo-laser3-highest-res-1936x1296When focusing the audience’s attention on the pertinent portions of a PowerPoint presentation, the laser pointer is a tool. When exercising your cats by giving them a red or green dot to chase, the laser pointer is a toy.

When you point it skyward, it can be an anti-aircraft weapon.

And when you point it with purpose at an airplane, it is a federal offense subject to stiff fines (up to $250,000 and $11,000 for each violation) and possible relocation to a secure facility that will limit your view of the sky for up to 20 years.

As aviation-aware readers of the Chicago Exec blog, you already know this, and you fully understand the multitude of unhappy consequences for a pilot—and his or her passengers—blinded by a laser pointer. But members of your extended family, friends, acquaintances, coworkers, and colleagues may not know that thoughtlessly aiming a laser pointer skyward—especially around any airport—can lead to bad things. So we urge you to share this story with them through your social media connections.

Looking at the period-size dot of light the cat chases, you may wonder why pointing a laser (which stands for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”) at an aircraft is such a bad thing. What are the chances of hitting a moving target with that little dot of light, anyway? (Better than you think, which is why laser sights on assault weapons are so popular.) Without getting too deep into Big Bang physics, spatial coherence focuses the light into the dot cats love to chase, and it allows that dot to be projected over great distances.

But the dot does grow with distance, and by the time it reaches an aircraft flying at 1,000 feet above the ground, it is many times bigger that a period of light. When it hits the minutely scratched surface of an aircraft windscreen, it instantly diffuses, creating a flash of intensely bright light. If you want to experience this for yourself, find a friend and good-sized camera strobe, go outside on a dark night and wait 20 minutes for your night vision to stabilize, then have your friend hold the strobe at windscreen distance from your open eyes. When your friend fires the strobe, without warning, into your open eyes, he or she should note the time to see how long it takes for you to see anything other than the flash.

Now imagine that you, if you’re a pilot, or your pilot, if you’re not, were on final approach and cleared to land at Chicago Executive Airport when the laser flash blinded you. This is but one example of the hazards and effects of a laser strike.

For more information, the latest laser news, laws, and civil penalties, and a pilot safety information brochure, visit the FAA’s Laser Safety Initiative website. Pilots can also report a laser incident on the site, and they can rest assured that the FAA, FBI, and local authorities will use this information to identify—and track down—repeat offenders.

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