2005-01-01

Rash of Pilot Laser Sightings Reported

UPDATE: This item on laser incidents in commercial aviation has been moved to the top of the page.

Laser beams pointed into cockpits of planes?

The recent case of a Cleveland-bound pilot being apparently tracked by a green laser beam is not an isolated incident, news reports suggest. A new article by Leslie Miller of AP, appearing in the Duluth News Tribune, reports that
The FBI, concerned that terrorists could use lasers as weapons, is investigating why laser beams were directed into the cockpits of commercial airliners six times over the last four days.

A federal law enforcement official speaking on condition of anonymity said that the bureau is looking into one incident in Cleveland, two in Colorado Springs, Colo., and three others. The official said there is no evidence of a plot or terrorist activity.

...On Monday, a laser beam was directed into the cockpit of a commercial jet flying about 15 miles from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport at an altitude of between 8,500 and 10,000 feet, the FBI said.

The pilot landed the plane, and air traffic controllers used radar to determine the laser came from a residential area in suburban Warrensville Heights.

On Monday night in Colorado Springs, two pilots reported green pulsating laser lights beamed into their cockpits. Both planes landed without problems.

A report by John Caniglia of the Cleveland Plain Dealer adds:

The Federal Aviation Administration has found hundreds of cases in which lasers have been pointed at planes since 1997, according to an agency report. In April 2003, the FBI said in a report that lasers are being pointed at planes "at an alarming rate."

"Illumination by a laser beam at night can distract pilots and even cause fatalities if it occurs during a critical phase in the flight," the report said.

On Monday, the plane left Washington, D.C., for Cleveland. At 7:50 p.m., the pilot noticed the beam, which streamed into the cockpit, the FBI said. The plane was about 15 miles from Hopkins and well into its descent.

Authorities said simple lasers, such as those used in office presentations, usually aren't strong enough to be seen 10,000 feet above ground. But others used in construction surveying and the building trades are.

With the Internet, it is not difficult to find lasers to buy. One company peddles a product that tells consumers to use with "extreme caution, as people miles away will be able to see the beam and its origin."

Anyone with information on these incidents should call the FBI at 216-522-1400.

The Plain Dealer also reports that the airline affected by the latest incident - which the FBI declined to name publicly - was Continental.

TruthNews adds:
According to the FBI, many varieties of pointer lasers exist. Some that project a beam that can reach 1,500 feet cost as little as $15. Gangs in California have used the technique of bundling lasers to use against law enforcement helicopters.

After unknown lasers illuminated several commercial aircraft in 1995 and 1996, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began tracking laser attacks against aircraft and helicopters. As of 2003, the FAA had documented over 200 laser incidents occurring over a geographical area covering 16 states.


See also:
Morning Report - December 30.

Update:

AP report, via Casa Grande Valley Newspapers:

On Christmas night, two SkyWest pilots said they saw two laser-like rays of
light in their cockpit as they attempted to land at the airport in Medford,
Ore., according to FBI spokeswoman Beth Anne Steele.

On Monday, a laser beam was directed into the cockpit of a commercial jet flying about 15miles from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport at an altitude of between
8,500 and 10,000 feet, FBI special agent Robert Hawk said. It was determined
the laser came from a residential area in suburban Warrensville Heights.

Also on Monday in Colorado Springs, two pilots reported green
pulsating laser lights beamed into their cockpits. Police sent patrol cars
and a helicopter in a fruitless search. FBI spokeswoman Monique Kelso said
the bureau is continuing to investigate.

In New Jersey, the pilot of a corporate-owned Cessna Citation carrying 13 people said three green lasers were pointed into his cockpit while approaching the Teterboro airport on Wednesday night. Law enforcement officials said they were believed to have originated near a mall in Wayne, according to Passaic County Sheriff's Office spokesman Bill Maer.

All the planes landed safely.

More details on the New Jersey incident from wnbc.com:

The pilot, who has not been identified, reported that three green lasers
were pointed into his cockpit Wednesday night. They were believed to have
originated in the vicinity of Willowbrook Mall in Wayne, said Bill Maer, a
spokesman for the Passaic County Sheriff's Office.

The pilot saw the
lasers on his approach to Teterboro, according to Maer.

The plane, a
corporate-owned Cessna Citation with 13 people aboard, was about 11 miles from
the airport when the incident occurred, authorities said. It landed safely and
no injuries were reported.

The FBI and the Federal Aviation
Administration were investigating the incident Thursday, according to spokesmen
with both organizations. New Jersey State Police, the county sheriff's office
and the Wayne police department were also involved in the investigation.

Also on the New Jersey incident, Alisa Camacho of the Herald News at NorthJersey.com adds:
The incident, first reported to the Federal Aviation Administration as having
taken place over the Rockaway Townsquare Mall, sent a slew of Morris County law
enforcers out to investigate. They called in a State Police helicopter, which
checked out the coordinates, said Deputy Chief Paul Kallenberg, a spokesman for
the Morris County Prosecutor's Office.

It turned out that the Cessna
Citation business jet, which had taken off in Florida, had been descending
toward Teterboro Airport and was actually 12 miles east of the Rockaway mall,
near Willowbrook.

It landed safely and none of the 13 passengers aboard
were injured.

"To my knowledge, the source has not been determined,"
said State Police spokesman Lt. Kevin Rehmann.

On Thursday, the FAA
declined comment, saying that the investigation has been turned over to the FBI.
It's unclear if the alleged beam of light is related to six similar incidents
that have taken place across the country in the past week.


UPDATE:

This article in Canada's Asian Pacific Post contains information about the possible military uses of laser blinding techniques, as well as possible sources for such weapons. The article includes a photo of a Chinese-made ZM-87 Laser Blinder. It also cites an abortive attempt by Aum Shinrikyo in 1995 to use lasers against Japanese policemen. The green color of the laser light used may be significant, because the human eye is most sensitive to green light. The APP article also cites the case of LtCdr Jack Daly, USN, and Capt. Pat Barnes of the Canadian Coast Guard, who were apparently targeted by laser on April 4, 1997, while tracking a suspicious Russian vessel off the coast of British Columbia.

Update:
From Sgt. Stryker (via Instapundit) we have this analysis, which confirms my original suspicions:
Lasers are not being used to blind pilots. Lasers are being used to measure straight line distance from the ground to an aircraft aircraft at its most vulnerable state - landing. An aircraft on takeoff would be a more difficult target - maximum power and maximum climb. But a landing ship slows down to a speed just short of a stall and follows a prescribed path of flight .

The information regarding an aircraft’s peak vulnerability would be invaluable. Documenting landing approaches and and straight line distances would be highly useful in target acquisition. That information is critical regarding available weapons systems.

Since 2002, the FBI has been issuing warnings about shoulder fired missiles being smuggled into the U.S. The effective range of older shoulder fired missiles is between 11,000 and 15,000 feet and can be fired from up to 3 miles away from the target. Newer models, which are already bring copied by the likes of North Korea, China and Pakistan have ranges exceeding 22,000 feet with greater stand off distances.

In September of 2003, the Department of Homeland Security began soliciting bids for anti-missile devices for commercial aircraft. That was the beginning of an 18 to 24 month screening process.

In late December of 2004, it was revealed that Los Angeles Airport (LAX) was increasing its preparedness for a shoulder fired missile attack. John Miller, head of the LAPD Counterterrorism Bureau, explained that about 20,000 shoulder-fired missiles were currently on the black market. The black market prices range from $5,000 to $30,000, presumably based on the vintage of the weapon.

We have seen how cost conscious terrorists tend to be. Why waste an investment of $5000 to $30,000 when it turns out your target is beyond the range of your black market missile.

The laser activity is more than likely a target acquisition exercise.

And people are taking notes.


UPDATE:

The FBI has ruled out terrorism in a laser-related incident Sunday night, according to this article at CNN. The latest event, which affected a United Airlines flight from Nashville to Chicago, was not previously reported at Dreams Into Lightning.

This second case in which terrorism has been explicitly ruled out by law enforcement officials involved a commercial flight - not a police helicopter - and thus more closely resembles the other incidents reported. This article also points to "eight incidents since Christmas", suggesting that some, at least, may be attributable to pranks with new Christmas gifts. The officials quoted in this article also imply that a copycat effect may be responsible for some of the incidents.

It is too soon to discount the possibility that a portion of laser-related aircraft incidents may be linked to terrorism. However, this latest report suggests that law enforcement officials may be considering this a less likely scenario. If terrorism can be ruled out entirely, we'll all breathe easier.

Dreams Into Lightning will continue to follow reports of lasers being pointed into airplane cockpits as more information becomes available. Watch this space.

FINAL UPDATE: As of today's date (January 5), there appears to be no evidence that terrorism was involved in any of the aircraft laser incidents. Any further information will be presented in a new post.