Researchers look to regular laser beams in de-orbiting space junks
Laser beams pointed at airplanes can serve as a recipe for disaster. REUTERS

You spot an airplane flying above and flash a laser beam at it wanting to measure how far the pointer travels. You hope to see the laser spot on the aircraft. Nothing happens! You are thrilled about having pointed at the aircraft and happy to observe the speed at which your laser beam travels.

Well, did you know that your 'harmless' laser beam has all the ingredients to cause an airline catastrophe?

Flashing/ pointing laser beams at aircraft can potentially cause large-scale destruction and may even lead to the airplane crashing. In fact, pointing a laser beam at an airplane can momentarily blind the pilot at night time. The situation is comparable to you being in darkness for a long time (your eyes have adjusted to the darkness) and somebody suddenly flashing a hi-beam torch at you.

What exactly happens when I flash a laser beam at an aircraft during night?

Even though a laser pointer appears as a small dot, it has the potential to spread rapidly. You are probably wondering how a small laser dot can affect the aircraft, especially when its windows generally face upwards.

Laser lights are already known to cause glares and obstruct view. When you point the laser dot at an aircraft, the dirt particles and minor scratches on the body of the aircraft cause the dot to assume a huge form and spread across.

If the rapidly spreading laser comes in contact with the pilot's eyes which have already adapted to the darkness, then there is a very real likelihood of the pilot blacking out momentarily. It becomes increasingly difficult to see through the laser glare.

"'It is equivalent to a flash of a camera if you were in a pitch black car at night. It's a temporary blinding to the pilot and also to the tactical flight officer, whoever we are with", said an FBI officer at a recent conference.

The distracting factor

A laser pointer hits the pilot directly from the window. The pointer gets magnified by virtue of the materials that are used in the aircraft's body.

The pilot and the co-pilot observe the laser beam lighting up a specified area of the cockpit, like the ceiling. This phenomenon generally tends to lower concentration levels of the pilots, especially during critical junctures such as take-off and landing.

Laser beams also cause distraction when they hit the passenger side of windows, similar to that at the cockpit.

So, is it illegal to point lasers at aircrafts?

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has declared laser flashing at airplanes a 'felony', and has launched a massive crackdown on stray incidents.

The FBI is also offering $10,000 (£5982 approximately) to people aiding in the arrest of miscreants indulging in laser flashing.

"If you point a laser and interfere with the operation of an aircraft, that's a felony. The crime carries a maximum of 20 years in federal prison and a quarter of a million dollars fine. In addition, the FAA can impose a civil penalty of up to $11,000 for each violation," states the FBI.

Aren't the FBI and pilots over reacting? People can drive at night even with oncoming headlights

Not really. Pilots are not used to sudden bursts of light, especially during take-off and landing. Even during in flight operations, pilots experience a sudden dazzle.

The FBI is only bothered about the lives of people.

Studies show that it becomes increasingly inconvenient to perceive lasers, when compared to flashlights and vehicle headlights.

Pilots are also being trained to handle laser flashings during critical junctures, and thereby steer the aircraft safely. The FBI also adds that there haven't been any catastrophes as of now, arising out of laser flashing, due to pilot alertness and training.

So, the next time you spot an aircraft flying at night, don't bug the pilots!