Are Lasers and Drones Making Flying More Dangerous?

We asked an expert about all the new technologies that supposedly make piloting a plane more hazardous.

Feb 16 2016, 5:15pm

Photo via Flickr user kov-A-c

On Sunday, a New York-bound Virgin Airways flight returned to Heathrow Airport after a laser beam was shined into the cockpit. The laser reportedly affected the pilot to such a degree that he had to be met by ambulance staff but not hospitalized. So that's good. The British Airline Pilots Association was quick to comment on the incident, calling for the British government to classify lasers as "offensive weapons" in order to prevent such incidents from ever happening again.

However, if you went on eBay right now and searched for a "5mW laser," hundreds of results would appear, with prices as low as $5. If you were in the mood to attack an airplane from the ground—and, by the way, we are not saying you in any way should—these are the doozies you would use. Easy access means that this damage isn't being caused by a group of evil masterminds but by bored teenagers pointing key rings at planes for fun.

Between 2009 and June of 2015, 8,998 laser incidents across the country were reported to the UK Civil Aviation Authority, with nearly 200 incidents of laser targeting reported in the US each day in 2015.

Coincidentally, on the same day as the Virgin Airways laser attack, the International Air Transport Association released a report stating that 2015 was an "extraordinarily safe year" for air travel, with the global jet accident rate equivalent to just one major accident for every 3.1 million flights.

This begs the question: Is all this worrying about lasers for nothing? Is air travel safer than it's ever been, or will lasers soon cause us all to regularly screech out of the sky? I asked Paul E. Eden, aerospace expert and author of numerous books on military and civilian aircraft, to debunk a few flying myths.

VICE: What happens when a laser beam hits an airplane?
Paul E. Eden: With the laser light, by the time it gets to the airplane, it's spread quite widely. This isn't just a pinprick of light shining in their eye; this is a light that floods the cockpit. Because the windscreen panels are made of layers of material, the light defuses, and what you can get is a whole panel that turns the color of the laser light. You can't see though it at all—even if it's just for a couple of seconds.

Oh, so these laser beams can actually be pretty dangerous then?
Luckily, there hasn't been a case of permanent damage to a pilot's eyes yet, but to a pilot, eyes and ears are everything—you can't fly without them. Then there are the actual hazards of flying if you are blinded, even for a couple of seconds—the pilot will be lost and could hit something.

How is the threat of lasers different from other hazards pilots face?
Pilots naturally train for the unexpected; they look around the cockpit all the time. They will literally lean forward in their seat to look for potential hazards. So as soon as something unusual happens, like a laser shining at them, they naturally look towards it. And this is what you absolutely shouldn't do, because it will blind you. So a pilot's training instinctively causes them to do the one thing they shouldn't do in this instance. Pilots have to be able to recognize that threat and work in a way that's alien to them to avoid it.

If there haven't been any accidents yet, should passengers be concerned with the threat of lasers, or of consumer-level drones causing planes to crash?
Personally, I would be more concerned with choosing a safe airline to fly with rather than being concerned by the risks of a laser shining at the airplane. If you are flying in the UK or North America and most of Europe, really, you haven't got any concerns with safety. People like to say, 'Ah, maybe flying with EasyJet or Ryan Air is more of a risk because they are cheap,' but the maintenance is fabulous; all the planes are maintained so well, and the crews are trained so highly, so it's judging about where you fly and whom you are flying with.

So some countries have safer aviation systems than others?
If you look at the statistics for where the most airplane accidents happen, it's clear. Airlines in countries such as Russia, and then parts of Asia and Africa, are more prone to accidents. It really all comes down to the oversight; sometimes there aren't necessarily the government organizations ensuring that the standards are kept and that training is done to standard. Also, you sometimes don't get the same ethos within the industry; you don't get the same experience levels in other parts of the world. In the UK, a lot of the pilots come from the RAF, with brilliant knowledge and expertise. But for an airline in other countries, when something does go wrong, often people don't have that background to decide what's best to do.

So, really, we shouldn't worry about lasers?
Lasers are less of a threat to airplanes, as they are only in contact in take off and landing, and usually at that time you don't have anything in front of you. But when you start thinking about police or ambulance helicopters, which have also been targeted, that's difficult, because they are flying much lower down and are slow moving. If you think of a police helicopter over London, all those tower cranes and chimneys, a pilot wouldn't have to make much of an error before they are down in the high stuff. It is a worry—it really is.

Apart from lasers, what are the main hazards pilots are looking out for?
Typically, if there are other airplanes that have deviated from their flight path. Often that would be a light aircraft, someone who has gone out flying with their friend. Another thing that pilots are constantly aware of is birds, as they can do a lot of damage to an airplane very quickly.

From flying into the engine?
Yes. They can damage the engine but other parts of the airplane as well. It would be unlikely for birds to bring down an airliner, but they could damage it enough for it to have to return to where it had just taken off from. In very rare cases, a bird will actually make a hole in an airplane.

What's the biggest hazard to an airplane?
Sorry to be boring, but it's weather. Wind shear, for example, is probably the biggest risk. Imagine you were leaning left on someone with all your weight and suddenly they push you right; that's what windshear is: a completely unexpected push in the opposite direction to where you think you were going. But this is something airlines are getting to grips with now because there are new systems in place where pilots can be forewarned.

How do pilots prepare against these hazards?
Through very advanced simulated training. Typically a pilot will be in the mock cockpit with all the systems that would be in the real airplane, and they will have moving visuals around them. Pilots don't just use simulator tests in their training, but they have to go regularly throughout their career to practice emergency procedures. The tests will run a program of emergencies but also insert things they weren't expecting, like failing an engine. The pilots are always being tested to extremes they will probably never encounter.

What about bombs—should people actually worry about them?
Well, bombs are quite different because they come from people causing damage with intent. Airplanes are built to standards where they are far stronger than they need to be to fly safely. But you can't make an airplane bomb-proof. Ultimately, it comes down to stopping those bombs getting on the plane in the first place.

So, overall, is flying becoming more or less dangerous?
I don't think flying has been dangerous since the 1940s. Of course, there are always risks involved, but I think those risks reduce all the time. Every new airliner is safer than the one that came before. Also, the industry is very inward-looking at any mishaps it has had, always questioning why it was that something went wrong and trying to find a way to fix it. For example, if a car crash happens on the M1 because a driver has pulled into a lane without signaling, and then if all car drivers [made sure to always signal], things naturally become a lot safer.

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