Japan to enforce fines as laser use targeting Navy pilots rises
By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 2, 2016
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The laser light glaring through the cockpit of Lt. J.D. Davis’ Super Hornet jet was no cheap office pointer.
Davis approached Naval Air Facility Atsugi earlier this year just before 8 p.m., dropping below 3,000 feet, when a steady green laser coming from the ground began tracking him for about 20 seconds.
This wasn’t the first time someone shined a laser at Davis while he was flying, though this beam was far more intense than one he experienced over Texas.
He averted his eyes to avoid the distraction, as well as potential vision impairment, and notified the flight leader shortly before the next pilot was targeted.
“What it does is take you away from your primary duty of flying a jet,” Davis told Stars and Stripes. “Your attention is now focused on, ‘What is that thing I’m seeing that I’m not typically used to seeing?’”
Lasers have been repeatedly pointed at pilots landing at Atsugi in recent years, with reports occurring as frequently as 12 times in a month, said Lt. Cmdr. Amanda Jimenez-Myers, an aerospace optometrist treating Carrier Air Wing 5 pilots.
Lasers have been an increasing problem for commercial pilots in Japan as well, but until this year little has been done to discourage anyone from shining them at pilots, whether out of curiosity or harmful intent.
On Nov. 30, Kanagawa Prefecture police arrested a 55-yearold man on charges of “forcibly obstructing business” for pointing a green laser at a low-flying Atsugi patrol plane, Jiji Press reported.
The broadcharge will soon be focused to include more explicit regulations on hazardous laser use.
On Dec. 21, the Japanese government will start enforcing revisions to aviation laws that will make pointing a laser at an aircraft punishable by up to a fine of 500,000 yen, or $4,500, a spokesman for the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism said Nov. 28.
“We are very pleased to hear that the Japanese government is taking measures to curb this dangerous behavior,” U.S. Naval Forces Japan said in response to a Stars and Stripes query. “The use of high-powered lasers against civil aviation, as well as U.S. Forces Japan and Japan Self-Defense Forces aircraft, is not only hazardous for the aircrew and passengers, it could also be catastrophic for people on the ground.”
A worldwide problem
As Japan takes steps to curb laser use, incidents continue to rise in other parts of the world among U.S. military pilots.
In March, two crew members flying a U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle were temporarily disoriented by a laser beam as they descended toward RAF Lakenheath in England, military officials reported.
In July, the pilots of an Air Force C-17 were blinded by a laser beam from the ground on final approach to Ramstein Air Base, according to German police.
Incidents occur at Air Force wings throughout the continent, a U.S. Air Forces in Europe said in March.
Aviation statistics show that 90 percent of laser illumination incidents occur close to airports, during the approach of landing phases. At 262 feet or below, even a $10 office pointer can flashblind a pilot, according to Federal Aviation Administration simulations.
The same cheap laser represents a distraction hazard at just past 11,700 feet, as the cockpit aviation glass magnifies what seems like a weak light on the ground with a strobe effect.
Stronger lasers, like the one Davis likely encountered, are available online and particularly from manufacturers in China.
Flashing a laser at a plane is a federal crime in the U.S., where doing so can result in years behind bars. In 2014, the FBI began offering rewards of up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of anyone intentionally aiming a laser at an aircraft.
Assessing safety risk
While most lasers aimed at pilots don’t leave lasting injuries, industrial-grade lasers above 500 milliwatts are capable of causing serious retinal and skin damage.
A lower-intensity incident may leave pilots with temporary vision impairment, minor pain and light sensitivity, Jimenez-Myers said.
Pilots exposed to lasers should turn away, blink, avoid rubbing their eyes and check with the crew for exposure, she said.
“If someone is lased in the aircraft, they stop to assess if they can continue the mission,” Jimenez-Myers said. “As soon as they’re done with the mission, they let the flight surgeon know.”
The flight surgeon will then normally contact an optometrist or eye-care specialist soon afterward.
U.S. and Japanese officials are hoping that the new law, along with some added media attention, will prevent laser use.
“We’re flying these aircraft over a highly densely populated area of Japan,” Davis said. “Taking a pilot’s attention away with a laser is creating more of a situation than one might understand on the ground.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.