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Laser dangers: What happens when a light is beamed at a pilot?

The Redhill branch of the National Police Air Service issued a series of photographs on its Facebook page showing the impact of a laser being beamed into a cockpit during flight. Credit: NPAS Redhill

Increasingly powerful lasers aimed at planes can blind, dazzle and distract pilots during critical stages of flying - even after the beams have left the cockpit, a pilots' union has said.

The British Airline Pilots Association said the laser beam that forced a New York-bound Virgin Atlantic flight to return to London Heathrow will have put the aircraft, its crew and the 252 passengers on board at risk.

Police are continuing to investigate the source of the beam that left the plane's co-pilot unwell following the incident on Sunday.

Video report by Sally Lockwood

Balpa said pilots face several dangers during and after a laser is beamed into a cockpit:

  • Temporary vision loss associated with flash blindness
  • Glare
  • An after-image
  • An image left in the visual field after exposure to a bright light
  • Other forms of "visual interference that persist" after the beam has gone

The union's general secretary Jim McAuslan emphasised Sunday's attack on the Virgin flight was "not an isolated incident" and said "more needs to be done" to tackle the growing use of lasers against aircraft.

A laser beam can establish a full glare of light on the face of a pilot or co-pilot. Credit: NPAS Redhill

Around 9,000 laser incidents across the country were reported to the UK Civil Aviation Authority between 2009 and June 2015 despite the reckless action being made a criminal offence in 2010.

Police helicopters are equipped with technology to identify the exact location of the culprit who is targeting the plane with a beam of light. Credit: NPAS Redhill

"Aircraft are attacked with lasers at an alarming rate and with lasers with ever-increasing strength," Mr McAuslan said.

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

In November 2015 it was reported that the eye of a British Airways pilot was damaged by a "military" strength laser which had been shone into the cockpit of his aircraft earlier in the year.

The National Police Air Service called on the public to help bring offenders to justice. Credit: NPAS Redhill