Lasers endanger SA planes

2011-03-01 09:07
Johannesburg - Pilots who were preparing to land a passenger jet on Sunday evening had to look away from the runway and rely only on their instruments after people on the ground pointed lasers at the plane.

This is one of over 70 incidents over the past 10 months in which laser beams have been used by people on the ground to illuminate passenger jets.

The beams can blind pilots and put the lives of passengers in danger, said Captain Margaret Viljoen, an executive committee member of the Airline Pilots Association of South Africa (Alpa) on Monday. Alpa represents about 2 000 pilots.

Viljoen was the victim of this dangerous new trend when she was piloting a Kulula flight (MN 455) from Lanseria airport in Johannesburg to Cape Town on Sunday night.

Green laser beams

Viljoen and her co-pilot were at about 800 feet (about 233 metres) and were ready to land when they noticed a green laser.

"The person with the laser looked for us in the air. We switched off all the outside lights so that he couldn't see us," said Viljoen.

"My first officer moments later saw four laser beams. They found us when we came close to the runway.

"We were prepared and didn't look outside at all. We only used our instruments to land."

Viljoen says the problem with laser beams is that if they are shone in pilots' eyes they can temporarily blind them to such an extent that they can't see where to land. Pilots can also sustain permanent eye damage.

In an incident at Lanseria, two pilots were blinded so badly that after landing they couldn't see the man who signalled where to park the plane.


Viljoen said pilots in South Africa have been lucky so far in that no one has sustained permanent eye damage and that there have been no accidents related to this.

The worst that has happened is that pilots have walked around with blurred vision for a few hours to a few days.

According to Viljoen, this new danger started about a year-and-a-half ago, but she started keeping a record of the incidents 10 months ago. The laser was presumably used for pointing out stars.

Viljoen said a Durban man was arrested last year for pointing a laser at a police helicopter.

"If people aren't stopped, it could lead to serious incidents," she said.

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