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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.

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.”

US: JetBlue pilot reports minor laser injury over Long Island

The FAA is reporting that a JetBlue pilot suffered an unspecified minor injury to his eye, caused by a green laser beam while over Deer Park on New York’s Long Island. The incident happened July 15 2012 as Flight 657 was at 5,000 feet altitude about 35 miles east of its destination, JFK International Airport.

The First Officer was in command of the aircraft when two flashes of green laser light came into the cockpit, about 10 minutes before the plane landed safely at JFK. After landing, he went to a local hospital for an examination. Apparently, no other person on the flight was adversely affected by the laser light.

The FAA and FBI are investigating the incident.

JetBlue flight 657 laser Long Island
Flight path of JetBlue Flight 657 on July 15 2012, from

From myfoxny.com, NYCAviation.com, NBC 4 New York, and ABC News.

Commentary from LaserPointerSafety.com: The FAA defines a laser eye “injury” as anything which happens to an eye, including temporary afterimages and watering eyes. According to this definition, around 1.5% of all laser illuminations of aircraft result in an eye “injury”. In 2011 there were 55 FAA-reported “injuries” out of 3,191 total laser incidents. From Jan 1 to June 28 2012, there were 20 “injuries” out of 1,519 incidents.

Almost all of what FAA calls “injuries” are in fact normal eye effects resulting from bright light exposure. For example, a person temporarily flashblinded by a camera’s flash would be “injured” according to FAA, although eye safety experts clearly state that an afterimage is temporary bleaching of photoreceptors and is not an injury.

Using a scientific definition of visible laser eye injury, meaning a minimally visible lesion on the retina, there have been no documented permanent laser eye injuries to pilots in any of the over 11,000 FAA laser incidents on record. This is according to FAA’s top laser/aviation safety expert. There have been roughly 3-5 temporary laser eye injuries where pilots had a lesion which was medically visible, and which subsequently healed to leave no spots or other adverse vision effect.

This is not to discount any eye effect or distraction of pilots -- aiming lasers at aircraft is a crime and a serious safety issue. But FAA should be more accurate, and give additional information, when providing information about pilot eyes affected by laser light.

US: Multiple laser incidents at New York airports

WABC is reporting that three aircraft at JFK International Airport had laser incidents in the last three days (since April 17). They also report an incident at nearby LaGuardia Airport yesterday (April 18). The FBI is investigating.

According to WABC, on Saturday April 17, a JetBlue flight originating in Portland, Maine was landing at JFK “when suddenly the pilots were distracted by an intensely bright green laser”. According to tower transcripts, the pilot said the laser was “directly pointing right at us. I saw the flash to the left looked, looked out left as I was landing. Put my head down, put up the sun screen.” [Note: This is a good reaction. Although the pilot initially looked towards the light, the pilot then took steps to reduce the light’s effect.]