Incidents of lasers pointed at aircraft on the rise in Canada

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Police have charged a 39-year-old Calgary man for allegedly shining a green laser at several aircraft over the city earlier this month.

Does anyone above the mental age of 12 still think aiming a laser at a passing aircraft is good, harmless fun?

What's the object of this exercise? The only thing I can assume is the person doing the pointing hopes for a reaction, for something to happen. What exactly? Forcing the aircraft to veer out of control, to crash maybe? I suspect if you asked, you'd get a smirking shrug for an answer.

Another judgment-challenged young man was arrested in Calgary this week for allegedly targeting a police helicopter with a powerful Type 3 laser, The Canadian Press reports.

The pilot was blinded momentarily while the chopper was on a routine patrol, police said.

"This caused extreme anxiety of our pilot," Insp. Guy Baker told CP on Thursday. "The potential for eye injury was great.

"And you can imagine, if you're temporarily blinded and you're operating a helicopter, what kind of precarious position that would put ... the pilot, the people inside the helicopter and of course people living on the ground."

A 19-year-old man faces a charge of mischief, as well as a charge under aviation legislation, Baker said.

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Transport Canada says someone convicted under the Aeronautics Act of pointing a laser at an aircraft could face up to a $100,000 fine or up to five years in prison, or both.

Hitting a cockpit with a laser will, at the very least, distract the pilot, create glare that makes flying difficult or cause temporary flashblindness, all of which could in the worst case trigger a crash, the department warns.

British authorities report dozens of incidents have occurred in the last few years of lasers aimed civilian, police and military aircraft. Those include at least three hitting planes bringing back wounded troops to Birmingham for treatment, the Birmingham Mail reported recently.

There's even been speculation that a laser might have played a role in last month's fatal crash of an Asiana Airlines at San Francisco airport last month, based on the pilot saying he was temporarily blinded by a bright flash, USA Today reported.

Pointing a laser in the air is not always malicious. Astronomer Chris Vaughan told Global News in June he sometimes uses a laser to point towards things in the night sky during public education events.

“Much the same as a picture is worth a thousand words, a few seconds with the laser far outweighs many minutes of frustrating pointing and waving or physically grabbing and moving people in the dark to get them oriented,” said Vaughan, who is a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC), Toronto Centre. “Pointing out star patterns to people who don’t own telescopes allows them to quickly learn some celestial geography that they’ll retain from having seen it firsthand.”

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The problem has grown as inexpensive laser pointers have become more widely available. According to Global News, the number of reported incidents of the green-coloured lasers being pointed at aircraft rose from 183 in 2010 to 371 last year, based on Transport Canada figures.

A Langley, B.C., man, aged 30, received a five-month conditional sentence for pointing a laser at an RCMP helicopter in 2011, Global News said.

RCMP in Nova Scotia are still investigating an incident when a laser hit a passenger jet as it was preparing to land at Halifax Stanfield International Airport.

Astronomers are trying not to be lumped in with these guys.

"There’s not been one case of an amateur astronomer being charged or convicted of the misuse of green laser pointers," Randall Rosenfeld, who chairs the RASC's laser-pointer committee, told Global News.

"And most of the established amateur astronomical groups do have a policy and do have guidelines, and the RASC has them.”