WASHINGTON, D.C. — The news of pointing lasers at aircraft in recent weeks has focused primarily on scheduled airline incidents, but with general aviation aircraft outnumbering commercial planes more than 25 to 1, the danger to individual flights is obvious.
Laser pointing at aircraft is not new. It began about 1990 in the Los Angeles area. At that time, police were using helicopters to track gang action. Gang members would tie six laser guns together — they called them “”six packs”" — and point them at police choppers to distract the pilots and force them to leave the area.
Since that time, more than 400 incidents of lasers being pointed at aircraft have been reported. This figure is not confirmed as accurate. Collection of data was begun by an FAA employee on his own at the Oklahoma City facility. He accepted various kinds of reports in order to get some handle on the problem. However, the total and the recent rash of incidents is enough to concern all pilots.
The issue is considered serious enough for Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta to make the announcement of FAA’s action instead of leaving it to the FAA. “”We’re treating lasers in the cockpit as a serious aviation safety matter,”" the Secretary said.
FAA’s advisory circular on the subject (AC 70-2) outlines how the agency’s communication network will disseminate laser incident information and lists important information for pilots. When an in incident occurs, pilots in controlled airspace should report it immediately to the appropriate facility. If an incident occurs in the vicinity of a terminal facility, that information will be placed on the ATIS and stay on for at least an hour. If the incident occurs in uncontrolled airspace, pilots are urged to immediately broadcast a general laser illumination caution on the appropriate UNICOM frequency. If possible, pilots should avoid the area when hearing such a warning, but if under ATC, a change should not be made without authorization from ATC.
Although the problem has existed for some 15 years, its increase in recent times can be attributed to changes in lasers. Lasers are all around us and have been for years. Retail stores use them to read prices, homeowners use them to hang pictures straight, hospitals use them in operating rooms, manufacturers use them in assembly jobs, speakers use them to accent visual displays. What has changed are the beam and the price. The red beam has a range of only about a half mile; green can send a beam two miles powered by only three AAA batteries. The human eye responds to green light approximately 50 times better than a red laser pointer, making the beam appear as bright as a flash bulb going off in your face. Additionally, in the last three years, the cost of a laser pointer has dropped from about $400 to $59, so lasers are readily available on a wide-spread basis.
The nomination of Michael P. Jackson to be deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security pleases many in aviation circles because of his transportation and Washington politics experience. Jackson served as special assistant and executive secretary for cabinet liaison for the first President Bush. He has been deputy secretary at the Department of Transportation. He’s also held a top position at the American Trucking Association — giving him background on the workings of associations — and was chief operation officer of Lockheed-Martin’s ITS unit.
NASA, the FAA and the MITRE Corp. have successfully tested the new Multi-Center Traffic Management Advisor (McTMA), which should help reduce delays and holdings in traffic management. The system converts radar data, flight plans, and weather information into accurate forecasts of air traffic congestion. McTMA uses these forecasts to generate a specific advisory for each aircraft predicted to encounter a delay. Tests were conducted with ATC managers in New York, Washington and Cleveland, the Philadelphia Terminal Radar Approach Control and the National Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Herndon, Va. During the times when airborne holding would normally be expected, NASA says no holding was observed. Another test is scheduled for this month. If fully successful, NASA and the FAA will work to bring the technology into service.
For 44 years, airline pilots have been forced to retire at 60. Now Senator-pilot James Inhof (R-Okla.) and Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) have introduced a bill to change that to 65.
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.