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Pilot warns laser pen strikes are risking lives

A captain of the Great North Air Ambulance is warning that lives are being put at risk by people shining laser pens into the cockpits of aircrafts.

Jay Steward says there have been four incidents in the past 14 months.

This afternoon, the House of Lords discussed a bill which could see those who target any vehicle with a laser, face up to five years in jail.

A laser pen strike

This picture shows a laser beam being shone at a police helicopter. In the darkness the flash is temporarily blinding for the pilot. And if the beam shines directly into the eyes it can cause serious damage.

With a laser because it's a burning affect, if you look directly into a laser, it could really affect your eyesight.

The cabin itself, when a laser's pointed directly into it, will fully illuminate. We need our eyeballs to land and if we can't see then the outcome could be absolutely disastrous.

– Captain Jay Steward, Great North Air Ambulance

The Great North Air Ambulance has been targeted by lasers four times in just over a year. In the UK there are around 1500 attacks on aircraft every year.

To tackle this problem, a new Laser Misuse Bill is under discussion to make prosecution easier and penalties harsher. It was debated in the House of Lords today.

They quite rightly want to ensure that the wording in this legislation is as strong as possible and doesn't include any loopholes.

The amendments aim to capture all the different types of laser products that could be used to dazzle or distract the person in charge of a vehicle and indeed even some products which may not exist yet.

– Baroness Liz Sugg, Conservative

This new offence of shining or directing a laser beam towards a vehicle wouldn't just cover helicopters but all vehicles - and those found guilty could face an unlimited fine or up to five years in prison.

The chief pilot of the Great North Air Ambulance, Jay Steward, briefs his team on the dangers of laser strikes before every take off. He was targeted only two weeks ago, while over Peterlee, and welcomes the new bill.

Laser pens can momentarily blind pilots. Credit: ITV News tyne Tees

I think it's very important that it gets passed and equally important that when it is passed that actually when people do get in front of the judge, the judges send them away for this period of time.

I think the message will go out to people that you shouldn't be doing this sort of thing because eventually there's going to be a crash and when that happens there will be lives lost.

– Jay Steward

These views are echoed by the UK Civil Aviation Authority, which says it is "concerned about the high number of laser attacks in recent years and therefore welcomes new measures that would see tougher penalties for those who act recklessly by endangering the safety of aircraft."

The danger was very real when the Air Ambulance was targeted as it came into land at a hospital, less than 100 feet from the ground, when it was too late for the pilot to alter course.

There were five people on board, and all lives were in danger.

The new legislation which would carry a possible a five year jail sentence will hopefully act as a deterrent to those tempted to misuse laser pens.