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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.”

UK: UPDATED - "Military-strength" laser injures retina of pilot landing at Heathrow

In spring 2015, a pilot in a British Airways plane landing at Heathrow Airport was illuminated by what was assumed to be a “military-strength” laser, according to the general secretary of the British Air Line Pilot’s Association (BALPA). The man was treated at a Sheffield hospital for a burned retina in one eye, and has not worked since the incident, said BALPA’s Jim McAuslan in a November 23 2015 statement.

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.)