A comprehensive resource for safe and responsible laser use
Intro: The pilot and a crewman on an American helicopter were hurt recently (October 24 1998) when someone fired a laser at their aircraft patrolling over Bosnia-Herzegovina. The men were able to land safely but this, and similar incidents in the Balkans, have sparked concern among U.S. air crews. U.S. military officials and police in Bosnia are investigating the incidents, and the U.S. Army says it is now changing the way it uses its helicopters. VOA's Jim Randle reports from the Pentagon.
Text: Pentagon officials say U.S. helicopters have been hit by lasers four times in Bosnia. Officials say one case caused 'mild to moderate' eye injuries when the laser light stayed on the aircraft for four or five seconds. The pilot and a sergeant were both treated for eye injuries, and both are expected to recover and be able to resume flying.
Nevertheless, Pentagon officials say the Army is changing the way It uses helicopters over Bosnia to lessen the danger to pilots -- but will give few details.
Pentagon spokesman Mike Doubleday did say pilots now have some protection from the laser threat: "What we've done to deal with the situation is to provide helicopter crews with either special glasses or goggles that protect their eyes in these situations."
An expert in weapons technology says the pilots have good reason for concern. John Pike studies strategic issues for the Federation of American Scientists. He says four thousand Iranian soldiers suffered eye injuries, including blindness, when Iraqi forces swept powerful lasers across their ranks during the Iran-Iraq War.
Mr. Pike said, "It was a lot easier for them to injure those soldiers using a laser than it was to kill them by hitting them with a bullet. And the thing is that an injured soldier is a lot more of a burden to a military than a dead soldier is, because every injured soldier requires several more to get him back to the hospital."
Mr. Pike says the Iranian battlefield lasers were those used by tanks to determine the range to a target. Other lasers are used to guide bombs and shells to targets with great precision.
Lasers are used by many nations, including the United States, in tanks, anti-aircraft weapons and to disrupt electronic devices.
Mr. Pike says recent treaties [the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, a 1995 amendment to the 1980 Geneva Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons] labeled weapons specifically designed to blind soldiers as "inhumane" and banned their use. But he says with so many lasers playing so many battlefield roles, it will be difficult to enforce the ban on these weapons.
From the Federation of American Scientists
According to China Daily, “The Defense Ministry said in a statement that the ministry has dismissed such ungrounded accusations from some US officials via official channels. It added that China always firmly honors international laws and regulations in Djibouti, and is dedicated to safeguarding regional security and peace.”
Separately, Reuters reported that “Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the government had conducted ‘serious checks’ and told the U.S. side the accusations were groundless. ‘You can remind the relevant U.S. person to keep in mind the truthfulness of what they say, and to not swiftly speculate or make accusations,’ she told a daily briefing in Beijing.”
From China Daily and Reuters
Spokesperson Dana White said the reason for the laser activity is unknown, “but it’s serious, we take it seriously.” She said it was “a true threat to our airmen”. The U.S. has protested and has asked the Chinese government to investigate.
Another Pentagon spokesperson, Major Sheryll Klinke, said the C-130 pilots were hit with a “military grade” laser.
On April 14 2018, the US military posted this notice to airmen (NOTAM) on the Federal Aviation Administration website, warning about “unauthorized laser activity” in Djibouti.
The NOTAM was scheduled to expire on June 14.
The NOTAM coordinates (N1135.70 E04303.14) are about 2,400 feet from China’s military base in Djibouti, opened August 1 2017 near Camp Lemonnier.
An article in the quasi-official South China Morning Post referred to “Chinese military observers [who] said the lasers might have been used to scare off birds near the airfield or disrupt possible spy drones, rather than targeting foreign pilots. A Beijing-based military analyst said China has already demonstrated laser weapons being used against drones, at airshows.
China is a signatory to the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, which bans the use of lasers that cause permanent blindness. The protocol does not ban laser dazzlers, which temporarily impair vision but do not cause eye damage. It is also permitted under the Protocol to use lasers to disrupt or damage cameras and sensors such as those on missiles or satellites.
According to The Drive, “As of 2015, Chinese forces had access to at least four different man-portable systems, the BBQ-905, PY131A, PY132A, and the WJG-2002, all of which look like oversized assault rifles or shoulder-fired grenade launchers.”
From The Drive, Janes 360, C4ISRNET, Defense News, South China Morning Post, FAA PilotWeb, and a YouTube video of the May 3 2018 Pentagon press briefing by Dana White. Thanks to Greg Makhov for bringing this to our attention.
UPDATED May 4 2018: China’s Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry both denied the U.S. allegations of laser use by China.
On February 19 2009, Joshua Don Park allegedly pointed a green laser beam two times at the Apache helicopter as it was flying over the Bluffdale area, about 20 miles south of Salt Lake City. Pilot Ken Samson said “It was strong enough that it illuminated my window, but not the entire cabin.” According to Samson, the laser was brighter than a laser pen, but was not a “military-grade” laser.
The air crew notified the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office of the approximate location. A deputy went door to door. When they encountered Park, the 30-year-old said he had a laser pointer to play with his cats. Park admitted that he had shined a laser at the aircraft.
According to the Sheriff’s Office, Park “believed that the helicopter was way too far away for it to make an impact or even see [sic]”
Park was charged on March 11 2009 with one count of interference with the operation of an aircraft. He faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.
From KSL.com (Feb 25 arrest report, March 11 charge) and Deseret News
UPDATED - August 31 2017: A National Guard pilot told the South Valley Journal that Park committed suicide shortly before he could be sentenced. Park died September 17 2009, according to a September 20 obituary in the Deseret News which included this photo:
The South Valley Journal article implied that Park’s suicide was linked to the laser incident, and that it changed how the National Guard reacted to laser incidents. The article stated “Since that sobering incident, no Utah National Guard pilots have reported lasing incidents to the FBI—but not for lack of occurrences.”
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:
A group of three U.S. ships — a destroyer, an amphibious assault ship, and a dry cargo ship — were transiting international waters in the Strait of Hormuz, according to a U.S. military statement. The Iranian naval vessel, said by one source to be a missile ship, came within 800 yards of the assault ship and scanned two of the U.S. ships with a spotlight.
The helicopter was flying alongside the deployment when the Iranian targeting laser was aimed at it, setting off the flares.
There was no report of injury to the helicopter pilots. A spokesperson for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet said “Illuminating helicopters with lasers at night is dangerous as it creates a navigational hazard that can impair vision and can be disorienting to pilots using night vision goggles.”
Marine Corps Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion
From Newsweek and CNN
UPDATED JULY 16 2017 - Iran claimed it did not point a laser at the helicopter. The Tasnim News Agency said “A top commander of Iran’s Navy denied reports that the country’s naval forces had pointed a laser at an airborne US Marine Corps helicopter in the Strait of Hormuz back in June. Commander of Iran's First Naval Zone Admiral Hossein Azad categorically denied reports of such incident.”
The report had no additional details, such as what could have set off the helicopter’s flares as claimed by the initial U.S. report.
From the Tasnim News Agency and the Tehran Times
The incident happened August 25 2016 in Mission, Texas. The pilot’s vision was temporarily impaired as the laser light lit up the cockpit. The pilot directed ground officers to a home, where Aaron Caceres, 27, and his brother Francisco Caceres, 24, confessed to the laser misuse.
Aaron (27) and Francisco (24) Caceres
There were no reports of injuries or damage caused by the laser, so the Navy “believes it was not of industrial or military grade quality….” A Navy public affairs officer from the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command called the Iranian use of the laser as “unsafe” and “unprofessional.”
From CNN and Stars and Stripes. Thanks to Greg Makhov for bringing this to our attention. Note: The U.S. Navy in November 2014 deployed the first laser weapon sent into trials on an active duty warship, the USS Ponce. Six commercial welding lasers are merged into a single beam of 30 kilowatts, that can be used against targets including Iranian gunboats, according to SlashGear.
It is alleged the man targeted a Seahawk helicopter from 816 Squadron as it was returning to HMAS Albatross after a training flight about 10.30pm. The high-powered laser was pointed at the aircraft for around a minute from the car park of the man’s workplace at South Nowra.
The helicopter landed safely, with the four crew members on board treated for slight eye pain.
Police from the Shoalhaven Local Area Command interviewed the pilot and co-pilot, who provided an approximate location of the beam’s origin. Police searched the area and located the 19-year-old man.
A laser pointer was seized by police and the man was issued with a future court attendance notice and is due to appear in Nowra Local Court on November 19.
From the South Coast Register
The propeller plane was patrolling the northern part of Crimea when it was fired upon during daylight hours.
From The Aviationist
Complete coverage, including more photos and videos, is in this LaserPointerSafety.com story in the “Statistics, laws, all other news” section.
Camp Pendleton’s Munn Field is used almost exclusively by helicopters, primarily on training missions. The chopper noise is “a backdrop to daily life in Fallbrook”, writes reporter Tom Pfingsten. He implied that perhaps someone annoyed by the noise is targeting the helicopters.
The air traffic control officer for Munn Field told Pfingsten that the lasers can potentially damage eyes and that pilots may not be able to see in the cockpit, especially when crews are wearing night vision goggles that bloom when hit by laser light.
Pfingsten wrote that “the Marines seem really worried about … losing one of their pilots to a random act of vandalism.” While the base files reports with the FAA and the Fallbrook sheriff, military police cannot be sent to find the laser source. So they are basically “asking nicely” that the public help stop whoever is lasing the military helicopters.
From the North County Times
- Two counts of interference with flight crew (20 years maximum penalty for each count)
- Two counts of aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft (5 years maximum penalty for each count)
- Two counts of assaulting, resisting or impeding federal officers (25 years maximum penalty for each count)
The Virginian-Pilot reported that Bruce aimed lasers at the jets “more than a dozen times” since December 2011. He was annoyed by the their noise. The two counts of assaulting federal officers may be related to Bruce calling the air station to threaten to shoot at the noisy aircraft.
According to a press release, “it is believed that the Eastern District of Virginia is the second jurisdiction to indict” using the new Federal law passed February 14 2012, making it a criminal offense to aim a laser pointer at or near an aircraft.
From the U.S. Attorney’s Office press release, PilotOnline.com, and WAVY.com
UPDATE July 31 2012: Bruce pleaded guilty to one count of interfering with the operation of an aircraft. The other five counts were dropped in exchange for the guilty plea. Bruce will be sentenced October 19 2012. He could receive up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Pilots testified that they saw lasers at least 10 times from the area of Bruce’s house between December 29 2011 and June 5 2012. One of the pilots lased by Bruce reported that direct eye exposure was painful, distracted her during landing, and gave her a headache. A spokesperson for Oceana Naval Air Station said that, of 18 laser incidents in Virginia Beach since December 2011, 12 of the incidents were due to Bruce. There were 12 incidents total in 2011. From the Virginian-Pilot.
Since the incident, “powerful” lasers have been outlawed in Switzerland, but pilots still report incidents. The Swiss emergency rescue team Rega says lasers have been pointed at their helicopters 16 times from January to October 2011.
From World Radio Switzerland. The original October 2010 story of the arrest and crew injuries is here.
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.
A Royal Navy spokesperson said the lasing was “extremely reckless and irresponsible behaviour…. Had we been in the middle of a rescue, this person’s actions could have jeopardized our ability to continue.”
Strathclyde Police were notified; as yet no suspect has been identified.
From BBC News. Click the “Rescue” tag in the left hand column to find similar stories of disrupted rescue operations in the UK and elsewhere.
According to the judge, “this was an extremely serious offence which could have ended in several fatalities” to those on board and on the ground.
From the Daily Express and Willesden & Brent Times
Four month sentence for Radu Moldovan
His lawyer said that Moldovan “wanted to see how powerful” the £4 green laser pen was. The laser beam was aimed at or near the aircraft multiple times. The local sheriff said “The consequences of a Tornado crashing at RAF Leuchars raises the most horrific possibilities of death and injury to the pilot, navigator and anyone passing underneath.”
From BBC News
According to CBS 3, the pilot was “blinded” which caused “difficulty in flying the air craft.” Police on the ground located Villalobos, who admitted to flashing the helicopter. He “thought it had been a news helicopter.”
From CBS 3