They may be useful, but laser pointers can pose a danger to pilots as was demonstrated just this week when a Virgin Atlantic pilot had to turn a plane around because of a “laser attack”.

On Sunday the pilot for Virgin Atlantic flight VS025 called into Irish air traffic control saying “We have a medical issue with one of the pilots after a laser incident after take off. We’re going to return to Heathrow.”

This represents just one of 1 440 laser strikes that happen annually in the UK.

But what about South Africa? Surely nobody in South Africa would something so dangerous and mindless? Unfortunately that isn’t the case.

According to the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), as many as 20 cases of laser strikes have been reported since the beginning of the year. That’s one incident every two days and the fact that nothing serious has happened yet is surprising.

The SACAA goes on to explain that often, laser strikes happen during crucial moments of the flight such as during take-off or landing. Having a laser distracting a pilot is dangerous but blinding them even more so.

How bad is a laser pointer shining through a pilot’s windshield? Take a look.

As you can see, what starts out as a tiny little laser pointer looks more like a spotlight once it hits the pilot.

The SACAA told that laser strikes are not to be taken lightly, “Lasers beams can lead to periods of blindness or disorientation of the pilot. They can also cause extended blurry vision or blindness.”

“What may seem like innocent fun for someone, distracting the pilot with a laser beam is in reality a very dangerous activity that could lead to a catastrophic aircraft accident,” the SACAA goes on to tell us.

In addition to this, laser strikes can cause permanent damage to a pilots retina given the intensity of the beam and the relative darkness the cockpit is in during a flight.

You could argue that your laser pointer that you use for presentations is hurting nobody but shining a laser beam at an aircraft is a crime.

According to Civil Aviation Regulations anybody found to be guilty of this activity can face a fine of R50 000, an imprisonment of 10 years or both.

For those that want to report incidents like this SACAA recommends going to your local police station, airport or getting in contact with the Air Traffic and Navigation Services.

That’s a big price to pay for any offence but then again, if you commit this, you are putting people’s lives in danger. So if you want to avoid jail time, a fine or both, just don’t shine lasers at aircraft.

[Image – CC BY/SA Rob Sinclair]