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The incident happened September 30 or October 1, 1987. According to an October 2 1987 Pentagon statement, a U.S. Navy P-3 reconnaissance aircraft was “illuminated by an intense light” from the Soviet ship Chukotka. An Air Force WC-135 intelligence plane also was illuminated.
The statement said the light “disturbed” the vision of the co-pilot, and “although preliminary medical evaluation has shown no apparent damage, further detailed tests may be required to determine if, in fact, no damage to her eyes occurred.”
Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wy) initially disclosed the incident. He said “In my opinion, anything that disturbs your vision for 10 minutes damages your vision. The effect was to temporarily blind that co-pilot."
According to the Pentagon, they believe the light source was a laser. The Pentagon statement did not speculate on the reason for the illumination of the aircraft.
The New York Times referenced one official who said the Soviet ship might have tried to harass or blind the pilots, while a naval consultant said it could be that the laser was used to track missiles and was inadvertently shined at the U.S. aircraft.
Such illumination had occurred before, according to the Pentagon statement.
The 1987 edition of a Pentagon publication, Soviet Military Power, said that "recent Soviet irradiation of Free World manned surveillance aircraft and ships could have caused serious eye damage to observers." The following picture and caption appeared on page 113 in the book:
The propeller plane was patrolling the northern part of Crimea when it was fired upon during daylight hours.
From The Aviationist
Coast Guard and Navy personnel boarded the vessel on April 7 but were unable to find any laser device, or evidence of a possible device. U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jack Daly was then examined by military laser eye injury experts, who found “there was a high probability that the minor burns on the lieutenant's right retina were caused by multiple laser exposures such as might result from a single glimpse at a repetitive pulsed laser.”
The American naval officer took this photo in the Strait of Juan de Fuca showing a red light on the M/V Kapitan Man. The light led some to suspect a laser. However, subsequent inspection did not find a laser, and in the location of the red light were “two deep red running lights … that met the guidelines established for sidelights.”
The U.S. Defense Department concluded that “[a]vailable evidence does not indicate…what the source of such an exposure might have been. Specifically, there is no physical evidence tying the eye injury of the American officer to a laser located on the Russian merchant vessel.”
The Strait of Juan de Fuca laser incident was also discussed in the August 2004 medical journal Archives of Ophthalmology. The article “Assessment of Alleged Retinal Laser Injuries” describes “Case 5” and concludes that “…[n]o evidence of laser injury was found in the years after the incident by 17 other ophthalmologists, including 5 neuro-ophthalmalogists and 8 retina specialists. A trial was held 5 years after the incident in which the retina specialist who made the initial diagnosis steadfastly maintained all the photographer’s [naval officer’s] symptoms were due to retinal laser injury. A jury ruled against the photographer’s claim for damages against the ship’s owner.… The patient had real complaints, but they were caused by preexisting autoimmune problems rather than by laser injury.”
The full text of the DOD press release, and the “Case 5” study is below (click the “Read More…” link). Additional information above is from a 2011 Washington Times story.