Officials: Laser targeting of F-15 fighter at Lakenheath not unusual
March 8, 2016
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The targeting of an U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle with a laser beam last week that temporarily disoriented its two crew members as they descended toward RAF Lakenheath in England was not an isolated incident, military officials say.
Lakenheath-based flight crews generally experience about one laser incident per month during night-flying training, typically October to March, said Capt. Emily Grabowski, a spokeswoman for the 48th Fighter Wing.
The problem isn’t limited to the United Kingdom.
“We can confirm that lasing incidents do occur at flying wings throughout” U.S. Air Forces in Europe, Capt. Lauren Ott, a command spokeswoman, said Monday.
Air Force officials in Europe couldn’t immediately say how many U.S. military aircraft have been targeted with lasers or whether any incidents caused injury or damage.
But aviation experts say the shining of handheld, high-powered laser pointers at aircraft is a growing problem worldwide for all pilots.
“It’s happening more and more frequently,” said Gideon Ewers, a pilot and aviation consultant based in Britain.
Ten years ago, only a handful of incidents were reported, Ewers said. “Today, there are thousands.”
In the United Kingdom alone, the number of laser incidents reported to the Civil Aviation Authority nearly doubled between 2009 and 2014, from 746 to 1440. And in the U.S., there were more than 3,800 lasing reports in 2014.
“There is now a widely held concern that a laser illumination event may result in a serious injury being sustained by a pilot during flight, with the associated erosion of flight safety margins,” the British Airline Pilots Association says on its website.
The long range of modern lasers makes military aircraft, which fly from restricted areas, easy targets, Ewers said.
The lasing of the Lakenheath F-15 on March 2 was one of two military lasing incidents reported last week. The other was in New Jersey, where the Federal Aviation Administration is investigating a report that a U.S. KC-10 refueling jet was hit with a green laser while on an evening training flight March 1.
The flight crew reported a green laser illuminated the plane at 10:20 p.m. at an altitude of 4,000 feet, NJ.com reported.
An Air Force spokeswoman said the crew reported a “momentary flash” and was able to avert their eyes, the news site reported.
High-tech lasers pointed at aircraft can disorient and temporarily blind pilots when their light refracts off the plane’s windshield, Ewers said. They can even cause permanent injury by burning the retina.
“It’s like a flash bulb going off,” he said. “There’s spotting in front of the eyes.” For a few moments, “the whole world goes bright green” and pilots can lose a visual picture, “even if it doesn’t hit you in the eye.”
Most approaches and landings are still hand-flown, he said, and the potential for loss of control of an aircraft from a lasing exists, depending on how a pilot reacts and on how complicated the approach is.
Lasers that pose a risk to aircraft are typically industrial-strength — not the ordinary handheld lasers used in PowerPoint presentations — and cost a few hundred dollars, Ewers said.
“You have to assume there’s some element of malice (behind lasing) or ‘see how rebellious I’m going to be,’” he said. In some cases, beaming an aircraft may be a dangerous game, “kind of like a tagging thing,” Ewers said.
One company, Wicked Lasers, which sells high-powered lasers online, says on its website that it’s shipped hundreds of thousands of lasers worldwide. One of its products has a beam reaching a maximum distance of 72,761 meters — or about 45 miles. The site carries this warning: “Do not shine your laser at an aircraft. Shooting a laser at an aircraft is considered a felony in the U.S.”
A U.S. federal law adopted in 2012 made lasing aircraft punishable by up to five years in prison.
Perpetrators can be hard to catch — but not impossible.
In December, an Okinawan man who admitted to shining a laser pointer at a U.S. military helicopter that flew over his house at night was ordered to pay a $4,152 fine.