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A Blinding Flash

By Frederick E. Tilton, M.D.; Federal Air Surgeon
Reprinted with permission from FAA Safety Briefing

You are enjoying the beauty and peace of a night flight. Suddenly, something catches your eye—literally. You are briefly aware of a blinding green light. Then, it seems as if you were punched in the eye. You instinctively close your eyes and try to avoid moving the flight controls in any way. The light subsides and, shaken, you land at the closest airport.

Ideally, you have not experienced this kind of close encounter with a ground-based laser pointer, but you need to be aware of this growing hazard. In 2010, the FAA received reports of more than 2,200 laser illumination incidents, up from around 300 just five years ago. California, Florida, and Texas recorded the most, but no place is immune with the widespread availability of cheap and powerful handheld laser pointers.

An FAA research team at the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI) found that while the chances of permanent laser damage are remote, the immediate effects of laser exposure are especially debilitating when the eyes are adapted to low-level cockpit lighting. Physiological effects include glare, flash blindness, and afterimage.

Glare—when an object in the field of vision appears obscured by a bright light source located near the same line of sight.

Flash blindness—a temporary loss of vision that gradually fades after the light source has been removed.

Afterimage—a temporary image in the visual field after exposure to a bright light, like the spot of light you see after a camera flash.

The CAMI researchers noted that the distraction created by a laser illumination incident is significant and developed a list of recommended actions:

  • Anticipate—When operating in a known or suspected laser environment, the non-flying pilot (if present) should be prepared to take control of the aircraft. Consider showing non-pilot passengers how to maintain the established flight path. Laser attacks are most frequently reported near airports, occur between 7:00 and 11:00 p.m., and between 2,000 and 10,000 feet AGL.
  • Aviate—Check aircraft configuration and consider engaging the autopilot (if installed) or keep the aircraft trimmed for “hands-off” control of heading and altitude.
  • Navigate—While avoiding abrupt maneuvers, consider using the aircraft fuselage to block the laser beam by carefully climbing or turning away from the laser source.
  • Communicate—Inform ATC with as much detail as possible, including location/direction of the beam and your location and altitude.
  • Illuminate—Turn up cockpit lights to minimize further illumination effects.
  • Delegate—If another crewmember has avoided exposure, consider handing over control to that person.
  • Attenuate—Shield your eyes. Do not look directly at the laser beam and avoid drawing others’ attention to the beam.
  • Do Not Exacerbate—Avoid rubbing your eyes.
  • Evaluate—If visual symptoms persist after landing, see an ophthalmologist.

Frederick E. Tilton, M.D., M.P.H., received an M.S. and an M.D. from the University of New Mexico and an M.P.H. from the University of Texas. During a 26-year career with the U.S. Air Force, Tilton logged more than 4,000 hours as a command pilot and senior flight surgeon flying a variety of aircraft. He currently flies the Cessna Citation 560 XL.


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