2004 and early 2005, a number of incidents were reported in the U.S. where laser beams
were aimed at aircraft. This page discusses these incidents. It contains answers
to the most frequently asked questions regarding lasers in general -- especially
laser pointers -- and their
role in aviation safety. In addition to this page, a
separate page discusses laser light shows and aviation safety.
of these incidents appear to have involved laser pointers.
Fortunately, legal laser pointers
(below 5 milliwatts in power) are eye-safe in aircraft
situations -- they are simply
too weak to harm
But authorities are concerned about
the brightness of the laser pointer
distracting, causing glare, or possibly
even temporarily flashblinding pilots. They are also
concerned about accidental or
from stronger lasers.
One of the two main
solutions is pilot information and training. Pilots can handle laser and
bright light illuminations if they know a
few basic guidelines. Also,
is underway to provide training materials, and to
introduce lasers into simulator training. Studies have shown
that after as few as three simulator exposures, pilots can
fully "recognize and recover" from a laser incident.
The other main solution is public education.
The recent arrest of a New Jersey man facing 25 years in
prison has gotten public attention. This is a strong reminder
that no one should
aim a laser at or near any aircraft or any other moving
The main concern is not so much eye safety
-- in most situations like this, the laser will not be on the
eye long enough or strong enough to cause damage. The main
concern is visual effects: distraction, glare (inability to see past the
light) and flashblindness (temporary loss of vision like a
camera flash going off).
Frequently asked questions
the intense interest in these potentially hazardous incidents, Pangolin has
prepared this FAQ. It comes out of our continuing support, dating back almost
fifteen years, for laser-aviation safety.
The FAQ was
written and reviewed by
experts with experience on the committees that helped create the U.S.
laser-aviation safety regulations, and the ANSI standards for safe outdoor laser
As a result of
our work presented below, a number of public and private (inter-association)
articles have been written including these:
IFALPA Medical Briefing Leaflet, February 2009
Line Pilot Magazine, March 2011
on any of these questions to find out more:
14-second animation shows the three visual effects that
concern experts: distraction (dimmest), glare
(medium) and temporary flashblindness (brightest,
with fading afterimage). The animation demonstrates how
an airplane laser exposure is almost always a flash, not
a steady bright light. Click
here or on the animation to find out more.
The diagram below shows the distances at which these
visual effects would occur, for a legal green laser
pointer. The most serious of these effects, flashblindness
and glare, occur within the first 1,000 feet of the
laser pointer's beam.
here or on the diagram for
an enlarged view. A more detailed discussion
of laser pointer hazard distances
What is the concern with
recent laser incidents?
There have been over a dozen incidents in late 2004 and early 2005 where bright
lights -- probably laser pointers -- were aimed at commercial airplanes in the
A key concern is
how much this affects pilots. The consensus of safety experts is
that legal laser pointers could not cause any eye damage. However,
simulator studies show that a bright light may interfere with pilot performance
by being a visual distraction, or at worst, by causing temporary
flashblindness like a camera flash going off. (See
animated photo above that shows what
these effects look like.)
The FBI appears to be confirming that the recent
incidents are not deliberate or using high powered lasers. On Jan. 4
2005, an FBI spokesman said "All incidents to date have been more of
nuisance -- a prank or accident." (Link to full story
Another concern is whether terrorists equipped with more powerful lasers could
do more serious harm. This concern became public in December 2004, shortly
after the FBI and Homeland Security Department issued a nationwide memo that
unnamed "terrorist groups overseas have expressed interest in using these
devices against human sight." (Ironically, it is possible that publicity about
the memo may have helped trigger the recent spate of nuisance laser pointer
incidents.) With more powerful, harder-to-obtain lasers, terrorists' intent
would be to cause vision problems that would make it more difficult for a
pilot to fly a visual approach during landing.
Note that the laser's effect extends to vision
only -- terrorists or others could not hope to create or obtain any laser
weapons effective against the aircraft itself.
any of the incidents involved professional laser shows?
of the recent incidents have been linked to laser shows.
Laser shows are
very safe. The laser show industry cooperates with
safety regulators. In the U.S., laser show operators working outdoors file reports with the
federal government, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Both of these agencies know where these shows are,
and how to contact the operators. The shows employ various techniques
including spotters to ensure that beams do not hit aircraft. These control
measures are described in the reports and must be acceptable to the FDA's
laser safety agency and to the FAA. This program has been very successful in
keeping professional shows safe.
What is the
best solution for these incidents?
There are two main solutions. The first is education of laser pointer users.
They need to understand that it is unacceptable to aim even low-powered lasers
at or near aircraft.
The media can help
tremendously by making it clear that no one should point lasers at aircraft,
cars or even people (e.g., keep away from eyes and head).
The second solution is
pilot information and training, which can reduce or eliminate these concerns.
Pilots are experts at anticipating emergency situations. Given knowledge and
even brief simulator experience, they can learn simple procedures to
recover from even the brightest
and most deliberate exposures.
Detailed suggestions are given
people have suggested banning laser pointers. For reasons why this is not a
complete solution, see the FAQ question
How lasers could affect pilot vision
How could a
laser or bright light cause problems?
There are four problems with lasers and bright lights. The first three are
"visual effects" that distract or block pilots' vision temporarily.
The animation at the top of the page
demonstrates these effects. Here are more details about them:
and startle. An unexpected
laser or bright light could distract the pilot
during a a nighttime landing or takeoff.
A pilot might not know what was happening at
first. They may be worried that a brighter light or other threat would be
As the light brightness increases, it starts to interfere
Veiling glare would make it difficult to see out the windscreen. Night vision
starts to deteriorate.
Temporary flashblindness. This works exactly like a bright camera
flash. There is no injury, but night vision is temporarily knocked out. There
may be afterimages -- again, exactly like a bright camera flash leaving
The three visual effects above are the primary concern
for aviation experts. This is because they could happen with lower-powered lasers
that are commonly available. The fourth concern, eye damage, is much less
likely. It would take specialized equipment not readily available to the
Eye damage. Though it is very unlikely, high power
lasers could cause permanent eye
injury. A person may not notice the damage -- it may be detected only by
medical exam. At higher levels, the damage may leave noticeable spots in the
same area of vision as where the original light was viewed (this is why one
should not look directly straight into the sun or any bright light).
unlikely of all is injury causing a complete and permanent loss of vision. To do this requires very specialized
equipment and a desire to deliberately target aircraft. Anyone wanting to do
this could find far less expensive, and much easier ways to attain their
Also, it should be noted that
claims of permanent injuries are not proof of injury. Some laser
experts are skeptical of
some reported pilot injuries, as the
would have required different types or powers of lasers
than those reported.
extremely unlikely that any of the four elements above would cause loss of the aircraft, especially if the pilots react properly
and work as a team. However,
many pilots have not had specific instruction or training. The brighter the laser, the longer it stays on
the cockpit, and the more unfamiliar the pilot is with
bright-light recovery techniques, the larger the chance for
determines whether a laser is potentially hazardous to aircraft?
beam's potential hazard to aircraft is governed not only by its raw
as many people think, but also by its color
(wavelength), divergence (sharpness of the beam),
pulsed nature, and exposure time.
- Power: The more
powerful the laser, the more energy it delivers when it
hits an object. This factor is important when
calculating potential for eye damage.
In addition, for lasers
emitting visible light, the more powerful the laser, the brighter it
appears. This factor is important when calculating
visual effects such as distraction and glare.
The eye is more sensitive to yellow and green than to red, blue and
purple. Thus, if you have two lasers with equal light power,
in the dark a green one will appear 3 to 5 times
brighter than a red one (see dashed Dark-Adapted curve
in the chart).
The eye's color response is one reason why
most laser-aircraft incidents involve green lasers – they are simply more
visible (and thus more annoying) than equivalent-power red
or blue lasers.
It is also possible to have
invisible laser beams whose beams are in the ultraviolet or infrared
spectrum. These produce no visual effects (distraction, glare,
flashblindness) but at high powers could be eye hazards to pilots.
(beam spread): Laser beams are tighter than other light, but
they do spread out. At a very close range, the entire beam of a laser
pointer could enter someone’s eye. But after 1000 feet
the beam is about a foot in diameter. It will appear much
dimmer since only a fraction of the beam
would then enter the eye.
Continuous vs. pulsed. A laser's light can be always on, like a
flashlight, or it can be pulsed, like a strobe light. The pulsing can be so
fast that the beam appears continuous.
A pulsed laser of a given power
(light output) is more of an eye hazard than a continuous laser of the
same light output. This is because more power is packed into each pulse.
(It is the difference between someone applying steady pressure with their
fist on your arm, and repeatedly hitting you on the arm.)
Pulsing is a factor only when discussing eye hazards.
For visual effects (distraction, glare and flashblindness), a pulsed laser
can be treated as an equivalent-power continuous laser.
- Length of exposure:
The longer the laser shines on an object, the
more energy is absorbed. That's why a laser flashed in
an eye (or cockpit) is much less dangerous than the same laser held
Legal laser pointers have such low power output (<5
mW) that a person
can blink and turn away well before damage is likely to occur.
One study by the Mayo Clinic has
shown that 5 mW exposures of 15 minutes do not cause harm. ("Other than
transient afterimages that lasted only a few minutes, we were unable to
document any functional, ophthalmoscopic, fluorescein angiographic, or
histologic evidence of damage to any structures of the eyes."
there have been a few cases where ignorant people have deliberately stared
into lasers and have damaged the part of their retina that was
looking at the beam.
These four factors are
directly applicable to laser-aircraft incidents. If a person wanted to
distract or flashblind a pilot, they would want (1)
a powerful laser, preferably
with (2) a green color, that has
(3) a tight beam. They also would need
(4) a way to
keep the laser on the airplane windscreen for as long as possible.
This last factor, length of
exposure, is complex. Try hand-holding a laser pointer and aiming at a small
target, such as a retroreflective stop sign that is a few blocks away.
You’ll see how hard it is to hand-hold a laser on a static target even over
such a short distance. A laser hand-held at a moving aircraft would mostly
miss, and sometimes hit the cockpit. The pilot would experience a flashing
light more than a continuous beam.
This explains why
helicopters are more susceptible to laser incidents. They move slower in
general, they fly closer to the ground, and
they often hover. It is easier for a person to hand-hold a laser and
have it remain on the helicopter..
Can a laser beam “take down” an
word, no. It is practically impossible for terrorists to obtain or make lasers
that are powerful enough to harm the aircraft itself. Even the U.S., with the
world’s richest and most advanced military, has only a few lasers capable of
destroying aircraft and missiles. The most mobile one, the
Laser, has cost around $2 billion so far and still has not fired a single
beam from a mobile platform.
A terrorist group that wanted
to destroy an aircraft from the ground would undoubtedly choose
readily-available conventional anti-aircraft
weapons, such as missiles and hand-held rockets. These are much cheaper and
have been proven to be effective against aircraft.
Are there legal
lasers which are deliberately aimed at pilots, for aviation purposes?
There are no
operational systems at this time. However, a number of systems have been
proposed and tested.
These include lasers to indicate
guide slopes, and a laser warning system tested by NORAD to be aimed at pilots
who stray into restricted airspace. In addition, tests have been run in
simulators with lasers directed into the eyes of active commercial pilots.
all tests and research consider the safety impact of these aviation lasers on
What were the results of the
FAA's simulator studies?
In June 2004, the FAA published
the results of a study entitled
"The Effects of Laser Illumination on
Operational and Visual Performance of Pilots During Final Approach." In a
Boeing 727 simulator, they shined laser light at various levels on volunteer
pilots. The illumination happened during a demanding maneuver -- a simulated "short-final" landing,
when the plane was in a 30-degree turn 100 feet above the ground.
were asked to report how the illumination affected their "ability to operate
the aircraft and ... visual performance." Under these conditions, perhaps the
most demanding of any normal flight, pilots reported a slight-to-moderate
effect for the lowest tested light level, and a moderate-to-great effect for
the highest tested level. The light levels correspond to a laser pointer
located roughly one mile away for for the slight-to-moderate effect, and
roughly 500 feet away for the moderate-to-great level.
mind that the lasers were tested during an especially demanding flight
segment. A similar study was done by the FAA using less-critical flight
This August 2003 study showed
pilots reported none-to-slight effect for
the lowest tested light, and slight-to-moderate for the highest tested level.
The clear implication is that
laser light interference with a flight
depends partially on the taskload and flight segment. Most safety experts
would say that, outside of critical flight maneuvers (takeoff, approach,
landing, emergency situations), laser or bright light events can be
successfully handled without concern.
Laser pointer effects
Can a laser pointer
harm a pilot?
Legal laser pointers cannot
harm a pilot.
Legal laser pointers, with light output of less than 5 mW (5/1000 of a watt), are
relatively weak. They are so weak that, at close range,
it is difficult or impossible to cause confirmed eye damage. For example, the
Mayo Clinic study mentioned above showed no
damage to the retina even after a 15 minute exposure to a legal (5 mW) laser
pointer. This is echoed by
laser regulators who state that laser pointers cause eye damage only "if
you look directly into the beam from a laser pointer for more than a minute
and a half in a very steady manner."
aircraft incidents, it is safe to say that absolutely no eye damage could
occur from even the brightest legal laser pointer. The aircraft would be
well beyond the 50 foot range of eye hazard, the aircraft is moving at
high speeds, the pilot would naturally blink or avoid the light, and the
beam's light would spread out due to the large laser-to-aircraft distance.
laser pointers are not a great concern. For example, if an illegal laser
pointer is five times brighter, the eye hazard distance increases to 250 feet.
This is still a relatively short distance. This short distance, coupled with
the aircraft's movement and the pilot's normal blink/avoidance mechanism,
would protect the pilot from permanent damage.
damage limits were set conservatively, with a "safety margin". If you are
exposed to laser light at the eye damage limit, it would be unlikely in most
people to cause permanent damage.
What concerns experts is not
eye damage, but the brightness of laser pointers. This can cause distraction
or other visual effects.
For a laser pointer, what are
the distraction hazard distances?
A legal laser pointer (maximum permitted
power 5 mW) with a beam
size of 2 mm and a divergence of 1 milliradian has the following visual
effects, according to safety experts at
Rockwell Laser Industries:
Eye hazard causing
blink reflex (looking away from bright light): 0-52 feet
temporary flashblindness and afterimage: 52-262 feet
glare or disruption (difficult or impossible to see past light): 262-1,171 feet
distraction: 1,171-11,712 feet
distraction -- not
visible or blends into existing lights: Beyond 11,712 feet
diagram below shows graphically how most of the hazard is within about 1,000 feet of
the laser pointer source. Click
here or on the
diagram to see an enlarged view. (For an expanded version of the diagram
which includes example photos, click
Are the hazards reduced
because the airplane is moving?
Yes, the hazards are greatly reduced, compared with the
above safety distances. These distances are
a "worst case" scenario. They cover a green pointer where both the laser and
the observer are stationary.
However, in real life incidents, not
only is the airplane moving, but the laser is hard to aim either by
hand-holding or even by tracking with a tripod. The result is that the beam
flashes into a cockpit, rather than remaining steady. This reduces the actual
power of the beam (it is spread out over a larger area). It also reduces the
time that pilots are exposed to bright light (it is not a steady glare, but a
Fixed-wing pilots should be able to quickly
overcome the distraction, and to glance away from the beam
during the relatively short time it is directed towards the cockpit.
Helicopter pilots are more
susceptible because they fly low and slow, and may even be
motionless while hovering.
no one should aim
a laser pointer at or near an aircraft (or other vehicle), no matter
what the distance or laser power.
the table at right for more details about laser pointer distraction hazard
Pilot reaction and training
What can pilots do
if they see a laser or bright light?
answer is to look away and fly the plane. After the incident is over, report
it to air traffic control or broadcast it over unicom. Here are the details:
Pilots should be aware that they could be hit at anytime
by a laser or bright light (e.g. searchlight). The
pilots may have
a preliminary indication, such as seeing a beam coming towards them. Or it
may be a sudden bright light with no indication of direction.
If a laser or bright light
exposure occurs, pilots should understand this is a
very controllable situation, and they should “fly the plane” first.
With two pilots, the one who was not exposed should look at the instruments -- not out
the window. If the
plane is in a critical flight phase such as landing or takeoff, determine
whether it can it be flown without looking outside (example: on an automated
final approach). Determine whether a go-around might be prudent.
not look directly towards the light; instead, look a bit away from it. Be
prepared to look completely away and warn the other pilot if the beam or light
If conditions permit – the
light is gone or is low enough in intensity – one pilot may want to cautiously
ascertain the direction and nature of the light: Where did it come from? How
long did the exposure last? What color was it? Was there more than one beam?
New FAA procedures instituted in January 2004
(FAA Advisory Circular 70-2)
require pilots to report laser and bright light incidents. These questions
will help find perpetrators.
The pilot should report the
incident to ATC and/or on unicom. (See
Circular 70-2 for more details on the procedures.) The tower should warn other aircraft in
the area and should contact local law enforcement authorities if necessary.
The tower should also check for NOTAMs (Notice to Airmen) about any legal,
regulated laser activity in the area.
The pilot should understand
that the likelihood of actual eye damage is extremely low, even if the light was
very bright. There may be one or more afterimages, but these do not mean there
is permanent damage to the retina. Avoid rubbing the eyes, as it may cause
more harm than a flash exposure. Certainly if the pilot is concerned, they
can be checked by a qualified eye doctor with
experience in retinal examinations. The ophthalmologist
can be either hired by the airline or can be privately retained by the pilot.
Should pilots have explicit
instruction and training?
our opinion, yes. Certainly pilots are aware of the recent incidents, and want
to know the best way to handle the situation. Even
basic written or videotaped information will be very
helpful in understanding how to recover from a laser or
As of late January 2005, the SAE
G-10T Laser Hazards Subcommittee is working on training documents and
protocols. These will be submitted to the FAA for its consideration. It is expected
that for commercial pilots, G-10T will recommend exposure to laser light in a
simulator. Previous studies have found that pilots can work around the laser
effects, after as few as three trials.
How are lasers classified for safety
government regulations divide lasers into a number of “classes”. The class
depends on the potential harm from the laser beam. For visible
continuously-emitting lasers (not pulsed), the classes and
corresponding power levels are:
- Class I: Not
harmful. Power less than 0.00039 milliwatts (39/100000 watt). Barely visible
even in a dark area.
- Class II: Not
harmful given the eye’s normal blink reflex. Power above Class I but no
greater than 1 milliwatt (1/1000 watt). Visible in a dark area, barely
visible in a lit area.
- Class IIIa: (Includes
legal laser pointers) Not harmful given the eye’s normal blink
reflex. May be harmful if viewed by binoculars, telescope, camera viewfinder
or other light-concentrating optics. Power between 1mW and 5mW (5/1000
watt). Visible in lit areas; e.g. legal laser pointers.
- Class IIIb: Harmful
if a direct exposure or reflected off a shiny surface. Not harmful if the
beam is reflected off a diffuse (not shiny) surface. May be harmful at long
ranges (e.g., to a pilot at XXXX feet away) if the beam divergence is low.
Power between 5mW and 500mW (1/2 watt). Illegal laser pointers can be
between 5mW and roughly 30mW.
- Class IV: Harmful
if a direct exposure, or if the beam is a small dot reflected off a diffuse
or shiny surface. May burn skin or clothing. All powers greater than 500mW
(1/2 watt). These are typically expensive (tens of thousands of dollars),
large, and specialized to use. Indoor lightshow lasers are generally in the
½ to 20 watt range; outdoor lightshow lasers are generally in the 5 to 50
The exact power levels are
different for pulsed lasers and invisible lasers (infrared and ultraviolet).
However, the general principles apply: the greater the power, the more
potential hazard and thus the higher the class.
How do the laser classes
apply to airspace safety?
classes were developed for those closely working with lasers, such as
scientists and technicians. Since laser beams do spread out, the hazard is
lessened when one is much farther from the laser source. A laser beam from a
powerful Class IV laser may be reduced to a safe
laser-pointer-like level after the beam spreads out over distance..
For this reason, it is not
correct or appropriate to imply that a laser which is hazardous at close range
would cause similar hazards at aircraft distances. It is perfectly
possible for a laser that can light a cigarette two feet away, to be safe to
look at when one is 1,000 feet away from it.
In addition, the laser is
made even safer by the fact that the beam is likely to scan briefly over the
cockpit, rather than be accurately tracking for many seconds an aircraft
moving at hundreds of miles per hour. Thus, it also is not correct or
appropriate to imply that a laser which is hazardous when the beam
and its target are fixed, would be as hazardous when the beam is hand-held and/or the target
is rapidly moving.
To see these two principles
in action, try hand-holding a laser pointer to keep it on a retroreflective
stop sign a few blocks away. At the stop sign, the once pinpoint beam will now
be spread out to perhaps six inches in diameter. And your hand will have a
hard time keeping the beam on the stop sign – which is not moving as fast as a
plane in the sky.
This is why legal (Class IIIa)
laser pointers are primarily an annoyance to fixed-wing pilots. Their power
spreads out, and is not able to be held steady on the
aircraft, so the pilot gets
flashes of bright light but nothing powerful enough to harm the eye.
The situation is slightly
different for helicopter pilots, who fly lower and slower, and who often hover
in populated areas. The helicopter is closer. This makes it easier to hit, and the
beam doesn’t spread out as much. The pilot’s natural blink and aversion reflex
(looking away) prevents permanent damage, just as it would in a classroom or
office situation. But the distraction and possible temporary flashblindness
are potentially greater for helicopter pilots than for fixed-wing pilots.
Regulation and control
Who regulates lasers in the United
the U.S., the responsible federal agency is the FDA’s
Center for Devices and Radiological Health.
CFR Title 21, Subchapter J, Part 1040.10, CDRH sets up the
classification system, and specifies the
and performance standards used to make hazardous
lasers safer. (For example, warning labels and lights.)
Manufacturers and importers
of lasers make product reports to the FDA. In addition, the FDA regulates
three uses of lasers: medical users, construction devices, and entertainment
lasers (lightshows). All other uses of lasers, such as for industry, are
unregulated by the CDRH. This does not mean these lasers
are completely unregulated; there may be regulations by other agencies
such as OSHA or
Can anyone buy a laser?
anyone can purchase a laser. And, except for medical,
construction and entertainment uses, anyone may use the laser as they wish
without needing federal approval (a “variance”) from the CDRH. There may be
other regulations, especially in certain states such as
New York and
Texas which strictly regulate laser equipment. And there may be general
purpose laws, such as those restricting interference with an aircraft, which
can be applied to those aiming lasers at airplanes.
But there is no impediment to
buying a laser. This is not as bad as it sounds. For one thing, as laser
powers increase, so do the prices. Legal laser pointers are affordable, so
many people have them – but they are quite safe in general and in relation to
aircraft concerns. Illegal laser pointers, and general purpose lasers are in
the hundreds or low thousands of dollars, so fewer people own them. Even more
powerful lasers, like those used in professional outdoor lightshows, start
around $10,000 and can go to $50,000 or more.
For a determined person,
these prices might not be restrictive. But at least they keep the more
powerful lasers out of the general public’s hands.
Another factor to consider is
that higher powered lasers generally are more complex to operate. A laser
pointer is simple: put in a battery and hold down a button. But Class IV
lasers often have special electrical needs (220 or 440 VAC) and may even need
water cooling (such as two gallons of water per minute to cool the tube). In the
past few years, solid state lasers have made it easier to operate lasers. But
high-powered lasers still require special handling and are not usually
Why not just ban laser pointers?
This could be done. Class IIIa (5mW
maximum) laser pointers could be banned, with only "Class II" (1 mW maximum)
permitted. This would provide a 500% reduction in power, and owing to how the
eye sees bright light, about a 50% reduction in perceived brightness.
this is not a complete solution.
laser pointers are useful for a variety of everyday tasks, including astronomy
education. A lower power would make them essentially useless for some of these
laser pointers would not vanish. They would still be available as "used"
lasers on eBay and elsewhere.
would still be available -- they just would
not work like laser pointers, with a press-on, release-off button.
nothing to solve the problem of any deliberate use of high-powered lasers
reason, pilot information and training is a must, no matter what additional
regulations or restrictions are imposed on laser users. Pilots need accurate
information on how to handle a bright light exposure.
How does the FAA
Federal Aviation Administration does not regulate
lasers. It has issued an order (7400.2E,
ch. 29) covering the use and location of outdoor laser operations.
People who want to use lasers outdoors can fill out
FAA forms in
Advisory Circular 70-1
[caution: a 2.2 MB download]. The forms describe the laser powers, and
how the user will prevent pilots
from being illuminated by powers above FAA-required levels.
Recall that the
Food and Drug Administration’s CDRH
division regulates three uses of lasers: medical, construction and lightshows.
Since lasers are a problem to aviation primarily at night, it is only the
lightshows which are of concern to FAA. Therefore, if a lightshow wants to get
permission from the CDRH to present its show (a “variance”), the CDRH requires
it to conform to the guidelines in FAA’s
order. This is the only known situation where the
FAA order has the
effective force of law.
What are the FAA’s
FAA is most concerned with laser light around airports. They have established
permissible light levels in three areas:
The so-called “Laser
Free Zone”. This is a distance of from 2 to 5 nautical miles around an
airport where aircraft should not be exposed to light above 50 nanowatts per
square centimeter (the same as 0.05 microwatts per square
centimeter). This very low light level, 50 billionths of a watt,
“should not cause any visual disruption” according to the FAA.
Critical Flight Zone, a cylinder encompassing a radius of 10 nautical
miles around an airport, up to 10,000 feet vertically. Light levels should
be below 5 microwatts per square centimeter. This will “avoid flashblindness
or afterimage effects.”
Flight Zones, with light levels below 100 microwatts per square
centimeter. These are optional. Local FAA
personnel and the military can designate these zones as
needed. An example would be military airspace or a particular air
All other areas which are not
in the LFZ, CFZ or SFZ are designated as “Normal Flight Zones”. Within
this zone, the laser power must not be an eye-hazard. (Technically, power must
be below the Maximum Permissible Exposure, the “level of laser radiation to
which a person may be exposed without hazardous effect or adverse biological
change in the eye or skin”)
LFZ and CFZ zones cover a lot of airspace. If these
zones were strictly adhered to, then industries, observatories,
military bases and popular laser shows like those at Walt Disney World would
all be shut down. Therefore, the FAA does not object
to laser operations in airspace if there are “alternative control measures”.
These can include aircraft spotters for temporary laser uses, and
the use of radar or similar devices for permanent
most part these safety measures have worked. The current concern is not over laser
users who report to the FAA, but over unknown "rogue" laser users.
What is the
penalty for illuminating an aircraft with lasers or bright lights?
the U.S., there
is no specific law covering laser or bright light illumination. There are
general laws against interference with an aircraft. A suspect in the late 2004 incidents, David Banach, was charged with "interfering with the operator of a mass
transportation vehicle". This is a felony under the Patriot Act. The penalty
is up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.. (Banach was also charged
with making false statements to the FBI, potentially another five years and
There may be similar local and
state laws of a general nature, prohibiting unsafe acts. Some of these have
been used in the past in isolated laser incidents. Because these incidents are
so few and far between, at this time (early 2005) there does not appear to be
the need for more specific laws.
Are there no
federal or state penalties?
As mentioned earlier,
three laser uses -- medical, construction and entertainment -- are regulated
at the federal level by a division of the FDA. These users can face
administrative sanctions such as withdrawal of approval or fines for
deliberate or reckless violations of FDA regulations.
Over at the FAA, their
Order 7400.2E, Part 6,
Chapter 29 only covers the process of reviewing and approving applications for
those using lasers outdoors. There is no apparent penalty for not submitting
reports, or for violating the various airspace safety zones.
The only laser users restricted by the FAA's order
are those regulated by the FDA -- effectively, laser entertainment companies.
FDA requires outdoor laser shows to be reported to the FAA. If FAA objects,
then FDA will not permit the outdoor show to continue. And again, any FDA
penalties would be administrative.
Some states have laser
registration laws. Most states do not have any specific laws applying to
lasers or bright lights.
Internet source states that in
California, it is a criminal misdemeanor to shine a laser pointer at
individuals who perceive they are at risk (police officers?) and it is a
felony to aim one at an aircraft. We cannot independently confirm that this
laser-specific law exists. The same source also states that "some local
governments have passed regulations requiring anyone purchasing a laser
pointer to be 18 years of age or older. Again, we do not have additional