WASHINGTON, D.C. — At a time when laser beams aimed at aircraft are coming under scrutiny with Congress and others seeking methods to counter the potential danger, the military is testing a dual-based laser program to aim at aircraft that might penetrate the no-fly zone around the nation’s capital.
This was revealed at a hearing recently conducted by the House aviation subcommittee.
Randall Walden, technical director, Air Force Rapid Capability Office, told the subcommittee that tests have been made aiming two flashing lasers — one red, one green — at any aircraft on a course that would cause it to enter the restricted airspace around Washington. The program is under the direction of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which is now determining whether or not to make the program operational and possibly expand it to other areas.
Members of the subcommittee expressed concern about the warning system. “”At a time when we are trying to prevent lasers from disrupting aviation operations,”" said Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), “”DOD has created a warning system that flashes laser beams onto aircraft that violate the airspace surrounding the national capital region. I expect the department to take all necessary safety precautions before this system is ever activated.”"
Since last November there have been 112 reported incidents of lasers aimed at aircraft. The most recent was March 10 at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The plane’s first officer had to take over and land the aircraft.
Effects of lasers were described to the subcommittee by Parry Winder, a first officer with Delta Airlines, who was hand-flying an airplane Sept. 22 on approach to Salt Lake City when hit by a laser. This happened last fall before the news interest in the subject, said Winder, explaining that he and the captain were unaware of what the light was. He continued the approach, but lost some depth perception, causing him to flare too high, he said. The following morning he suffered severe pain — “”like an ice pick poked in my eye.”" The retina was swollen and his vision impaired for about three weeks. His eye still is sensitive to bright light, he said.
Attempts to find protection against lasers have been unsuccessful, said Nick Sabatini, FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety. Goggles that might block laser beams also would block other colors, making reading of instruments difficult. Sunglasses are of no value. Similarly, any attempt to place blockers in windscreens and windows would affect normal visibility, he said. The military has been actively seeking protection, but so far no technology is available, he said.
Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.), who is a pilot, questioned witnesses about research to find methods of protecting pilots. “”Keep general aviation in your studies as the thickness and strength of material on these airplanes is different from that on airliners,”" he said. Another pilot on the subcommittee, Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), also urged the inclusion of general aviation, reminding the witnesses that GA is “”an important part of our transportation system.”"
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) commented that the aviation subcommittee has no authority to restrict the sale of lasers, but can work with other committees, like the Commerce Committee, that do have such authority. In his opening statement, Chairman Mica said the purpose of the hearing, among other reasons, was to determine if new laws or regulations might be needed.
The ease with which strong lasers may be bought concerned several members of the panel. Mica showed a video clip of a laser burning a hole in a thick paper cup in less than seven seconds. He pointed out that these lasers are available quickly and at little expense on the Internet. Col. Peter Demitry, who accompanied Walden, said the military is aware of lasers that are effective as far as 26 miles.
The FAA’s Sabatini reminded the subcommittee that the FDA regulates lasers under its performance standards for light-emitting products. He said the laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) devices are very common today in everything from scanners in stores to CD and DVD players, as well as many industrial uses.
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.