A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

 October 2011   

More New Hazards to Flight:  Laser Lights 

     I was catching up on the news around the aviation world this morning, and several stories involving new flight hazards are popping up.  These items have been in the news before, but lately, more and more incidents have been reported.  I’m talking about two in particular; lasers pointed at airplanes, and electronic interference with navigation equipment. 

       Somewhere near 3,000 incidents involving high-powered, hand-held laser lights being flashed at airplanes were reported in 2010.  I don’t consider myself a techno-geek, having fallen years behind when it comes to electronics and the magic of things like i-Pods, cell phones, hand-held Blackberries and the like.  But I do know something about these lasers.  I know that a cat will get all the exercise it needs chasing the little red dot around the house. 

      Lasers have advanced too.  I doubt the general public has yet achieved access to anything close to what we see in science fiction movies where a beam is used to instantly vaporize an enemy space ship.  But, I really don’t know that for sure either.  What is fact is that the devices are no bigger than a flashlight and are capable of sending an intense beam of light a distance of many miles.  An on-line video demonstrated what it looks like on the receiving end from the cockpit of an airplane, and it’s pretty incredible, and dangerous.  Apparently, if the pilot happens to be looking in the general direction of the person with the laser light, and if that person’s aim is good enough to hit the airplane with the light beam, it could have serious consequences for the pilot’s eyes, not to mention his ability to continue in control of his aircraft. 

        It seems most of these laser sightings happen around busy airports, and are directed at low-flying aircraft as they approach to land or as they depart.  Presumably, the laser shooters are young people getting their kicks by lighting up the sky with these fascinating light sources.  Unfortunately, they are likely unaware of the consequences.  The FBI has apparently been able to locate and prosecute some of them. http://www.fbi.gov/losangeles/press-releases/2009/la042309.htm

 INTERFERENCE TO NAVIGATION INSTRUMENTS 

        Back in the days of crystal radios, which fascinated kids like me, I can recall moving the little antenna on a “rocket radio” up and down, tuning out the static and listening to distant AM radio stations through the earphone.  A tiny alligator clip fastened to the bed spring provided the ground-plane and many nights, I fell asleep with that device turned on.  In fact, it never went off.  Where it got its power is still a mystery to me to this day! 

           Surely I’m not the only one curious about how things like ‘rocket radios’ work.  Many readers of this article will undoubtedly confess to disassembling alarm clocks and transistor radios, just to see what’s inside.  But I gave that up years ago, allowing myself to accept that certain things are indeed the result of some form of magic.  It is entirely beyond me that people are walking around today with gadgets that can shop for best prices on items they’re looking for, communicate via voice or text messages with their friends, connect to the internet, check their stock portfolios, play games …. the list goes on and on.  In fact, these devices do so much, that I’ll never even know what they’re capable of.  Most people who own them don’t even know.  

           Electronics are a mystery, so complicated and have evolved so quickly that it’s not surprising things can go wrong.  Navigation equipment, GPS receivers, ILS guidance systems, even laser-guided bombs, at some point will experience interference or problems from unforeseen sources.  It has happened before and will continue.  How can devices like these be so advanced and be failsafe?   I read a recent article about how a faulty antenna on one GPS was able to totally disable a similar GPS a short distance away.  Factual or not, the warnings about using a cell phone on commercial airliners should be taken seriously.  With all that’s going on inside the devices and on the airwave bands, or whatever they’re officially called these days, I wouldn’t take the chance of dialing out for a pizza while on an airliner in the process of “auto-landing” on an ILS in a snowstorm.

             Gone are the days when you could take a wheel off a wagon and discover the inner workings of the bearings.  All that was easy to understand and make sense of.   For the average guy, most technology today is impossible to figure out.  It’s real magic to me. I respect and depend on the GPS, the VOR, even the ADF, but I also realize that they can be susceptible to failure.  It never hurts to have the old systems on board at the same time.  That means nothing more than a map and a compass along with some common sense and situational awareness.                                                                    

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