Lasers threaten air safety

2014-05-06 00:00

AUTHORITIES are battling to find those responsible for shining lasers at aeroplanes coming into land at King Shaka International Airport, north of Durban. A laser illuminating the cockpit can affect the sight of the pilot with potentially dangerous consequences.

“We have a task team working on it at the airport,” said Airports Company South Africa spokesperson Colin Naidoo. “The team comprises air traffic control, our own security and the SAPS at the airport.”

According to Naidoo, every time there is an incident the affected pilot reports the matter to air traffic control. “The problem is trying to get the co-ordinates of where it’s coming from,” said Naidoo.

Naidoo said authorities had not yet been able to identify areas where lasers were being. “The only way is if a pilot can indicate the area immediately it happens, then we can contact a police station and they can send officials to go out and catch the culprits.”

However, Naidoo admits that even if police do find a person thought to be responsible for lasering a plane the devices, which can be purchased at any hardware store, outdoor lifestyle shop or toy shop, are easily disposable when it comes to escaping detection. “They can just throw it away into the bush.”

Naidoo said laser incidents happen “very randomly” and there hasn’t been a particular increase in such activity of late. “But we need to get out the message that doing this is dangerous. People selling the devices need to know the impact these lasers can have and the people using them need to know there are consequences. Police will arrest anyone found doing this and use the full might of the law against them.”

Naidoo said laser lights being pointed at aircraft at King Shaka Airport appears mainly to happen with incoming aircraft. “Aircraft taking off move much faster but incoming aircraft come in at a certain level and fly a bit slower.

“It’s a crucial time in a flight,” said Naidoo. “The pilot is probably using instruments and when this happens it creates uncertainty in the cockpit and the pilot is in danger of losing vision.”

Naidoo, who was also spokesperson for Acsa at the former Durban International Airport, south of Durban, said there were no laser incidents there. “I was there for longer than I have been at King Shaka but in all that time we never had a report of such an incident”. He said he thought this was due to planes coming into land at the old airport having to fly over a “more industrialised area” as opposed to the residential areas around King Shaka Airport.

The Airline Pilots Association SA (Alpa) did not respond to a request for a comment by the time of going to press but in an earlier statement on laser illuminations said that most incidents happened at lower altitudes, “which happens to coincide with the critical phases of flight, for example approach, take-off and landing; and in the hours of darkness, generally in the evening”.

According to Alpa spokesperson Captain Margaret Viljoen, the impact of a laser illumination in the dark is “more pronounced … Laser illuminations can interfere with pilot vision, potentially impacting the safety of a flight.”

Viljoen said the public needs to be made aware of the dangers of using lasers to illuminate aircraft. “On television, there have been fictional scenarios about ‘lasering down an aircraft’, which might have induced misguided people to try it for themselves. On the other hand, many of the illuminations may be the result of genuine lack of understanding of the consequences of lasering an aircraft.”

Viljoen said if pilots are victims of lasers they should consider “executing a missed approach if the situation warrants”, and in the event of any “flash blindness or injury, hand over control of the aircraft to the unaffected pilot”.

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