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Virgin flight returns to Heathrow after laser shone into cockpit dazzles pilot

Video report by Sally Lockwood

A Virgin Atlantic plane bound for New York had to return to Heathrow Airport after a laser was shone into the cockpit dazzling one of the pilots.

The flight doubled back as a "precautionary measure" after the co-pilot reported feeling unwell following the incident, the airline said.

A law passed in 2010 made it an offence to shine a light at a plane in flight "so as to dazzle or distract the pilot".

A person may be found guilty of "reckless endangerment" and sent to prison.

A pilots' union said "more needs to be done" to tackle the growing use of lasers against aircraft.

Around 9,000 laser incidents were reported to the UK Civil Aviation Authority over the past six years - an average of 1,500 incidents each year.

1442
The number of UK laser incidents reported to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in 2014.
1912
The peak number of UK laser incidents reported to the CAA in a single year (2011).
746
The number of UK laser incidents reported to the CAA in 2009.

The British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa), which has campaigned for tougher laws over lasers, said the light tool can result in temporary vision loss associated with flash blindness.

This is not an isolated incident. Aircraft are attacked with lasers at an alarming rate and with lasers with ever-increasing strength.

It is an incredibly dangerous thing to do. Shining a laser at an aircraft puts that aircraft, its crew and all the passengers on board at completely unnecessary risk.

Modern lasers have the power to blind, and certainly to act as a huge distraction and to dazzle the pilots during critical phases of flight.

– Balpa general secretary Jim McAuslan

The union said the latest incident showed why it is becoming "more and more urgent" that the Government classify lasers as offensive weapons to "give the police more power to arrest people for possessing them if they had no good reason to have them".

In a sound recording posted on liveatc.net, a member of the Virgin team on board the plane is heard reporting "a medical issue with one of the pilots" caused by "a laser incident" shortly after take-off.

"We're going to return to Heathrow," the voice said, confirming "the other pilot is able to perform" the landing.

The Virgin crew member confirmed the incident occurred "around about six or seven miles west of Heathrow".

A spokesperson for Virgin said the airline was working with the police "to identify the source of the laser" used in the latest incident.

A message on the airline's flight status website said: "Following this incident the First Officer reported feeling unwell. The decision was taken by both pilots to return to Heathrow rather than continue the transatlantic crossing."

The police are attempting to find the source of the beam, but no arrests have been made.

Passengers on the flight were offered overnight accommodation, Virgin Atlantic said.