Pointing laser lights at aircrafts could spark a disaster

2014-05-14 00:00

POINTING a laser at an aircraft has the potential to cause a catastrophe.

Currently the worst affected airport in South Africa for such incidents is Cape Town, according to Captain Margaret Viljoen, vice-chairperson of the Airline Pilots’ Association South Africa (Alpa). “Cape Town is by far the leader in laser incidents. There is one guy there who really likes his laser.”

The second most affected airport is Lanseria, north-west of Johannesburg, followed by O.R. Tambo and Durban’s King Shaka International. “When King Shaka first opened there was an attack virtually every night for four or five weeks. It was probably someone in the area who was really cheesed off at having an airport in his back yard. These gradually tapered off to the odd occurrence now and again.

“People don’t realise it’s dangerous and that it’s a crime,” said Viljoen.

To change that situation Alpa plans to launch a Facebook campaign later this year to get the message across.

Airports Company South Africa’s spokesperson at King Shaka International Airport, Colin Naidoo, agrees.

“We need to get across that it is dangerous; why it is dangerous and why people shouldn’t do it.”

A laser light hitting the cockpit can affect the sight of the pilot with potentially disastrous consequences and Viljoen has maintained a database of reported laser incidents since 2009 “when it first became a real problem”.

“Worldwide I don’t believe that there have been any fatalities due to laser illumination, but there have been several occurrences which have caused interference with the routine operation of aircraft.

“Here, at Lanseria, two pilots reported having difficulties seeing ground staff while manoeuvring their planes into bays because they were still suffering from flash blindness as a result of lasers.”

Catching the culprits is a problem. “You are flying at dusk or night and it’s difficult to tell exactly which suburb or area the laser is coming from,” said Viljoen.

“It’s usually quite close to the airport and at close proximity to right or left of the runway. It’s likely from a pub carpark or some house where there’s a party.”

Viljoen said reports of laser incidents are “getting scanty”, with only three recorded in April countrywide.

“But that’s not a true reflection — as nothing seems to being done about it the pilots have stopped reporting incidents.”

The difficulty of pinpointing where the laser is coming from is compounded by the procedures to be followed: the pilot reports the incident to air traffic control who then pass on the information to the SAPS at the airport who then alert a police station in the likely area who then send out a vehicle to investigate. “By then the culprit has gone indoors,” said Viljoen.

“It is very difficult to achieve an arrest when so many steps have to be followed. You find that, in South Africa and internationally, the perpetrators who are apprehended have usually illuminated a police helicopter, and thus the arrest can be achieved there and then.”

This was the case in Durban during the Soccer World Cup in 2010 when a man was arrested after shining a laser at a police helicopter from the beachfront fan park. He was charged under the Civil Aviation Authority Act for “performing an act which jeopardises or may jeopardise the safety of an aircraft”. However, he was subsequently acquitted because it could not be proved he had the intent to commit a crime.

At present when under laser attack all pilots can do is take evasive action. “It’s a bit like Star Wars, you suddenly see a green arc coming up through the night sky,” said Viljoen. “You must avert your eyes; you mustn’t look into the source of the laser. If it’s really bad you can switch off all aircraft lights so they can’t see you.

“The law says lights have to be displayed at all times but if someone is breaking the law to get at you such action is justified — you switch them on again immediately after you have passed the area.”

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