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The aircraft was searching for a missing child at the time. The pilot and tactical flight officer were illuminated five times by the laser. It affected their ability to see and to give updated locations of the child, whom they had spotted shortly before the laser strikes.
Eric D. Harper was arrested at his home. Harper admitted to aiming at the aircraft. He told the arresting officers that he was sorry and he was unaware aiming a laser at an aircraft was illegal.
Eric D. Harper
From the Tampa Bay Times and ABC Action News
Note from LaserPointerSafety.com: Both stories quoted the sheriff’s office as saying that viewing a laser from infrared equipment such as FLIR cameras can severely damage the human eye.” This is not true. The laser may cause the FLIR viewing screen to “bloom” to full white or full green, which is very bright and of course can interfere with vision. The laser might even damage the FLIR sensor. But the FLIR sensor stops the laser beam itself — no laser light can enter the eye, and thus no eye damage could occur.
Virgin’s website stated that “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 airline said passengers would stay overnight and would then be able to fly to JFK Airport “as soon as possible”.
Police were attempting to find the laser source, said to be 6-7 miles from the airport. An article in the Daily Mail included a map showing the aircraft’s takeoff pattern, and the area where the laser beam was thought to have originated.
From the Telegraph, Daily Mail, BBC News and ITV. Audio recording from AirportWebcams.net.
UPDATED February 15 2016: The British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) called for “the Government to classify lasers as offensive weapons which would give the police more power to arrest people for possessing them if they had no good reason to have them.” From a statement on BALPA’s website, reprinted here.
UPDATED February 17 2017: A forum post claiming to be from the Virgin Atlantic pilot gave details about the incident. The person posted under the handle “scroggs”. He wrote: “I am the Captain in this event…. It was a red beam, not a green one. It was indeed reported as and when it happened. The pictures we got show its ground position (which wasn’t Legoland as far as I can see), and will hopefully help those in the know to estimate its power and provenance.”
Scroggs continued: “As was reported in the news, the FO did receive retinal damage from what appeared to be a 'lucky' passing sweep, but it's not permanent and will heal fully. There was no visual impairment during the flight, but there was no way of knowing (for me) that that would continue to be the case. The symptoms were slow in making themselves apparent. That's about all I'm prepared to say for now.” From post #173 in a thread on PPRuNE.org about the incident.
Background commentary from LaserPointerSafety.com
After around 40,000 laser incidents reported to U.S. FAA and U.K. CAA from 2004 through 2015*, as of February 14 2016 this is the first occurrence we are aware of where a commercial aircraft has turned around and not completed its flight, due to a laser incident from the ground.
- There have been a few instances where a flight has changed course, such as pilot doing a “go around” on landing because of laser light on the first attempt.
- Some police and rescue operations have had their missions disrupted by a laser; this has been common for the U.S. Coast Guard which has operational rules requiring a mission to abort if there is laser illumination.
- In 2013, there was an incident where an aircraft made an emergency diversion 224 miles short of its destination, because a passenger onboard was using a homemade laser to burn several small holes in fabric near his seat. This is the only other emergency diversion we are aware of due to laser misuse.
As of February 14 2016, there is no confirmed, documented case of permanent eye injury to a civilian pilot (commercial, general aviation, or police/rescue) due to exposure in the cockpit to laser light from the ground.
In a fall 2014 case, first publicly reported about a year later, a British Airways pilot illuminated by a laser on landing at Heathrow was treated at a Sheffield hospital for spots on his retina. The case was reported in a medical journal in January 2016 which said the area had healed within two weeks. An expert close to the case, who directly examined the journal paper and the evidence, told LaserPointerSafety.com in February that he does not believe the retinal injury was laser-induced, and that it was “not confirmed” as a laser injury “despite what the journal paper says.”
*29,097 laser incidents reported to U.S. FAA, Jan 1 2004 through Dec 31 2015; plus “more than 8,998 laser incidents” reported to U.K. CAA “between 2009 and June 2015.”
The accident happened in mid-October, in Stouerport, North Westchestershire. Simon Evans, next door neighbor to the family, had prior experience operating drones. Oscar was in his family’s front yard when after about 60 seconds of flight, Evans’ drone hit a tree, went out of control, and sliced through the toddler’s eye. The BBC quoted his mother, Amy Roberts, as saying “What I saw was what I thought was the bottom half of his eye, and it's the worst thing I've ever seen."
From the Telegraph and Ars Technica
Analysis and commentary from LaserPointerSafety.com
Although this severe accident did not involve lasers, there are some comparisons and contrasts with consumer laser pointer eye injuries. In almost all cases, a consumer laser injury does not cause complete loss of vision. It certainly does not result in exterior damage or destruction of the entire eyeball. On the other hand, drone injuries are rare, with only a few cases of persons being injured by falling drones. This is the only drone eye injury we are aware of, while there are a number of laser pointer eye injuries, some of which are in lists here and here.
McAuslan said the identity of the person, who was acting as co-pilot at the time of the incident and thus was not operating the aircraft, could not be revealed at present due to it being reviewed by an “employment tribunal.” British Airways said they are investigating the claimed injury.
McAuslan said that “kids’” lasers could not cause injury but that laser weapons could now be purchased illegally. [Lasers over 1 milliwatt in power are not legal for sale to the general public in Britain.] He said “We’re very concerned about it. When something as strong as this comes on the scene it starts to worry us.”
BALPA is also concerned over a survey of its pilot members, showing that 50% had reported a laser/aircraft incident during the period from November 2014 to November 2015.
According to the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority, there have been about 4-5 laser incidents reported each day on average, over the past four years. From January 1 to June 30 2015, there were more than 400 laser incidents reported to CAA.
From the Guardian, the Express, the Evening Standard, and the Belfast Telegraph
UPDATED - April 20 2016: Significant doubt has been cast on whether the eye damage was caused by a laser. In January 2016, a medical journal report was published by two ophthalmologists and a laser safety regulator. The report stated that there was no long-term negative effect on vision: “The pilot’s symptoms fully resolved 2 wk later.”
In February 2016 a very knowledgeable expert, who directly reviewed all evidence in the case, told LaserPointerSafety.com he “doesn’t believe it was laser-induced” and that the injury being caused by a laser was “not confirmed, despite what the journal paper says.”
This is confirmed by an April 2016 editorial written by three leading U.K. laser safety experts — including the laser safety regulator who co-authored the January 2016 medical journal report. The experts concluded the case is suspect for a number of reasons; they do not believe laser targeting caused the alleged injury. They wrote: “Only one case of alleged retinal damage to a pilot resulting from laser targeting of aircraft has been reported, although not in a peer review ophthalmic journal. This case is suspect because first and foremost, the metrology and exposure geometry would suggest insufficient energy could have entered the eye to produce irreversible damage and second the fundus anomaly is in the wrong location, the wrong shape and resulted in an extremely transient reported loss of VA [visual acuity] with full recovery.”
Analysis and commentary by LaserPointerSafety.com
If the pilot’s injury was caused by the laser exposure, this would have been the first documented case of a permanent laser eye injury to a civilian pilot. It would also have been the first case where a civilian pilot was unable to continue to be qualified to fly, due to laser exposure while in an aircraft.
There may be military cases of laser eye injury but if so, these would likely be classified and thus not be known to LaserPointerSafety.com. (There was a 1997 case of a military observer who had a claimed eye injury which was later found by laser injury experts to be not caused by his laser exposure.)
On the evening of March 9, the Federal Aviation Administration notified the New York Police Department aviation department that someone was pointing laser beams at aircraft landing and taking off from LaGuardia Airport. A helicopter was dispatched to try and “draw fire.” Nothing happened for about 20 minutes, until the helicopter flew a path similar to an aircraft landing approach. On the second pass, a laser was aimed at the helicopter.
Both pilots were hit. Said one, “You feel a strong tingle in your eyes. You have a burnt spot where you can’t see. It is very dangerous for any pilot to be blinded.”
Ground officers went to the apartment of Frank Egan, 36. His mother invited the officers inside, where they found a device labeled “Laser 303.” According to police, Egan admitted using the laser pointer. He said it was purchased for $50 in an Orlando shop while on vacation.
He was charged with assault on a police officer, felony assault, menacing a police officer, reckless endangerment, and criminal possession of a weapon.
The next day, March 10, Egan told reporters that he did not aim the beam and that he was sleeping at the time of the incident.
From NBC 4 New York, the New York Post and the New York Times
UPDATED March 14 2015: Frank Egan’s roommate and brother-in-law, Elehecer Balaguer, 54, claimed that he was the one using the laser pointer. According to the New York Times, Balaguer swore an oath in New York State Supreme Court on March 13 2015 that he, not Egan, was responsible: “Frank had nothing to do with it. I was the one that did it. It was just a kid thing. It was a stupid thing to do.” Balaguer first denied aiming at aircraft, then after being asked two more times, confessed “I pointed it at the plane, yes, thinking it was a …” and his voice trailed off. He then said “But I didn’t mean to hurt anybody.” According to Egan’s lawyer, Egan never told the police he used the laser, contrary to the police statement after Egan’s arrest. From the New York Times. A related article in the New York Times published March 12 2015 was entitled “Powerful Lasers Easy to Buy, Experts Say.” The New York Post called the laser “military-grade” and said it had been purchased while on vacation in Orlando.
Elehecer Balaguer in court
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UPDATED March 17 2015: Balaguer was charged on March 16 2015 in federal court with aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft. This has a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. FAA officials said they had to redirect traffic in and out of LaGuardia on March 9 to avoid going over the Bronx, where Balaguer and Egan lived. Balaguer’s attorney said the suspect “uses methadone every day and takes medication for bipolar disorder”, and that he was “harmless”: “It was stupidity, not venality.” From the Wall Street Journal.
UPDATED May 5 2015: Balauger pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft. He could face up to five years in prison. The judge said sentencing guidelines call for between 2 and 2 1/2 years. He said sentencing of Balauger would not be routine “Given his psychiatric history, given his apparent lack of any wrongful intent, I can see one set of arguments being made; on the other hand I can see a different set of arguments because of the danger presented,” said the judge. Sentencing was scheduled for September 9 2015. According to the New York Post, Balauger is a disabled ex-heroin dealer who has a history of schizophrenia and left school after ninth grade. From CBS New York, the New York Post, and the New York Times.
The incident occurred September 23 2014. The laser was pointed at the plane for around 2-4 minutes. Police are looking for the perpetrator.
Earlier in the month, on September 5, a Porter Airlines flight from Toronto was flashed with a green laser as it approached the Ottawa runway, according to CBC News.
A WestJet spokesperson said the pilots were cleared to fly and there was no permanent damage: “... there are real health repercussions for being exposed to a laser beam, so we do have a protocol in place where they will get checked out and there is also follow-ups.”
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