Laser interference may have serious consequences in air traffic – a laser is not a toy

18.3.2021 10.00
Press release
A green laser beam lights up the cockpit
This is how it looks when a laser beam hits the window of the cockpit. The picture is taken when the helicopter was on the ground

Laser interference of airplanes and helicopters is a serious threat to air traffic. Laser beams may impair the vision of pilots especially during the critical phases of flight, such as take-off and landing. Even temporary disturbances in the ability to see may have disastrous consequences. Laser pointers must not be pointed at people or aircraft, and they are not suitable for use for amusement purposes. Laser interference is a punishable act.

“The beam of a laser pointer may seem small and harmless, but it can interfere with pilots at long distances, interrupt critical operations and, in the worst case, lead to an accident,” says Jarkko Saarimäki, Deputy Director-General at the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency Traficom. “Even though the number of reported cases of laser interference has gone down in recent years, even one case of interference is too many and poses a hazard to aviation safety,” Saarimäki continues.

Pilots are not the only ones at risk

Laser beams make it harder for pilots to concentrate, and they may cause visual disturbances and a partial loss of the ability to function. When a beam hits the window of the cockpit of an aircraft, it typically also scatters, which may temporarily blind the whole cockpit. In a helicopter, for example, a laser may cause the other crew members permanent eye damage in the worst case.

“The pilots are in the cockpit to ensure safety at every moment. When a laser beam hits the cockpit of an airplane or a helicopter, this is not a minor disturbance; if the pilot is blinded by the light, it is the same thing as an attack against the safety of the flight. When flying low, preserving the ability to see in the dark is absolutely necessary,” Safety and Security Committee Chairman Lauri Soini of the Finnish Pilots’ Association reminds people.

Pasi Marttinen, Deputy Commander of the Finnish Border Guard’s Flight Division, and Ari Pellinen, Head of the Flight Operations Unit of FinnHEMS, note that laser interference can also cause unintended harm to third parties. “For example, when a sea rescue helicopter is on an emergency mission, the survival of a person who has fallen through the ice depends on how quickly they get help. Laser interference may delay that help or, in the worst case, prevent it completely,” Marttinen says. Pellinen continues: “Every time a medical helicopter is called in, it’s a matter of life and death. The mission being interrupted may be fatal to the emergency patient.” 

A laser is not a toy

Manual laser pointers are cheap and easily available, which means that many people mistake them for toys. However, children’s toys may only contain a weak Class 1 laser that does not cause harm to the eyes. Laser pointers are not suitable for amusement purposes, and laser beams must not be pointed at people or aircraft.  If the laser pointer is too powerful, it may cause permanent damage to the eyes, and even permitted lasers may cause temporary visual impairment such as becoming dazzled, flash blindness and afterimages. 

It is possible to purchase laser pointers from abroad that exceed the Finnish maximum limits massively. The laser pointers permitted in Finland operate in the wavelength range of visible light, and their maximum power is 1 milliwatt. Audiovisual equipment may have a laser pointer with 5 mW of power at maximum. If such a pointer has a green beam, it may interfere with pilots at a distance of up to three kilometres. If the laser has 125 mW of power, the interference may reach up to 18 kilometres.

“It must be noted that souvenirs from abroad or laser pointers ordered online do not always comply with the Finnish requirements. At the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, we have measured pointers purchased online that had as much as seven hundred times the permitted power,” Senior Inspector Reijo Visuri from the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority notes.
Säteilyturvakeskuksesta muistuttaa.

Laser interference is a crime

Pointing a laser beam at the crew of an aircraft is punishable in itself, even if it did not cause any actual damage or real danger to the aircraft, its crew or the passengers. If the use of a laser pointer is found to have endangered traffic safety, all the provisions of the Criminal Code that safeguard the life and health of people apply, such as the provisions on negligent bodily injury and homicide. The person who caused the damage may also be held liable for significant financial costs.

Enquiries:

Finnish Transport and Communications Agency Traficom
Jarkko Saarimäki, Deputy Director-General, [email protected], tel. +358 29 539 0576, on Twitter @Saarimaki

Finnish Pilots’ Association (FPA)
Lauri Soini, Safety and Security Committee Chairman, [email protected], tel. +358 40 575 8322, on Twitter @fpassc

Finnish Border Guard
Pasi Marttinen, Deputy Commander of the Flight Division, Lieutenant Colonel, [email protected], tel. +358 295 428 002, the Flight Division on Twitter @rajaheko

FinnHEMS Oy
Ari Pellinen, Head of Flight Operations Unit, [email protected], tel. +358 40 717 0778

Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK)
Reijo Visuri, Senior Inspector, [email protected], tel. +358 9 759 88 454

The Finnish Defence Forces
Kimmo Nordberg, Chief of Army Aviation, Lieutenant Colonel, [email protected], tel. +358 299 410 508

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