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Outdoor Laser Safety Is in the Hands of the FAA

Photonics Spectra
Apr 1997
Jennifer L. Morey

WASHINGTON -- Laser safety issues are again on the bargaining table. This time, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is facing the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and the impetus is a series of incidents involving lasers and aircraft.
The latest reported incident occurred in November 1996, when a Skywest Airlines pilot approaching Los Angeles International Airport was temporarily flashblinded by what was believed to be a laser beam. After its investigation of this incident, the NTSB delivered a recommendation that challenged the FAA to change its policies governing lasers used in airspace. The document urged the FAA to consider three main points of action:

  • Conduct a simulator study to validate the acceptable maximum laser beam power and radiation levels for outdoor use. The maximum irradiance value, established by the FAA, is currently 2.6 mW/cm2.

  • When the study is completed, provide FAA Flight Standards and Airspace Procedures personnel with information describing the laser power divergence levels to be used when approving the location and use of laser beams.

  • Update the Aeronautical Information Manual to include information to help pilots identify sites of laser activity, recognize the hazards of laser beams and avoid affected areas. Currently, no information is readily available to the aviation community regarding laser beams.

    A second round
    The International Laser Display Association (ILDA) has placed similar suggestions on the FAA's bargaining table in the past with little success. And though the organization agrees with the basic premise of the NTSB's recommendations, ILDA Airspace Issues Coordinator Patrick Murphy said the NTSB has omitted an important recommendation that could prevent 99 percent of all risks associated with lasers in airspace: The FAA should require pilots to complete simulator training or at least watch a training video that prepares them to deal with laser light exposure.
    ILDA has already written the script for such a video, but the FAA hasn't agreed to require it or fund it. The Walt Disney Co. has agreed to produce it, but Murphy said, "We feel it is 'Mickey Mouse' for private industry to have to do what the FAA should have done a long time ago."
    Murphy said the concern over laser irradiance limits is misdirected and misleading. Considerable military research indicates that the 2.6-mW/cm2 irradiance limit won't cause permanent eye damage; most lasers used in light shows are below this limit. "The problem is not with eye damage, but with temporary flashblindness or distraction," he said.
    Murphy also said that neither the FAA nor the NTSB has thoroughly investigated the Los Angeles incident. There were no FDA-regulated laser light shows taking place in the area at that time. Therefore, the source could have been a very bright spotlight or an unregulated laser use. To address these issues, the ILDA is planning to respond to the NTSB recommendation.
    The NTSB recommendation gave no indication of when the FAA is expected to act upon its requests. It did report, however, that the FAA has delayed previous attempts to validate laser irradiance levels for "unspecified reasons." And whether or not this recommendation is met with similar dalliance, the outcome rests in the hands of the FAA.

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