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UK: UPDATED - Flight returns to airport after pilot gets laser in eyes, reports medical emergency

A Virgin Atlantic flight from London to New York on February 14 2016 was illuminated by a laser shortly after takeoff from Heathrow Airport, around 9:30 pm local time. The Airbus A340 continued but then turned back after crossing Ireland. The pilot declared a medical emergency, not threatening to life, due to the laser effects. On a recording of air traffic control communications, a person was heard to say “we have a medical issue with one of the pilots after a major incident … the other pilot is able to perform his duties.”

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.

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.”