TERROR THREAT? Sudden upsurge in lasers pointed at planes on final approach

Terrorists have long threatened airliners with shoulder-fired missiles which target planes that are close to landing and thereby most vulnerable to attack.

APFederal authorities investigating reports of lasers being pointed at planes landing at Newark Liberty International Airport. The Federal Aviation Administration said it received about a dozen reports from pilots this week. All involved planes landing at the airport from the north.

“When a pilot’s eyes are hit by laser light,  it impacts a pilot’s  night vision almost instantaneously,” explained aviation expert Jay Miller. “If it’s a very powerful laser, it can literally blind the pilot.”

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FAA spokesman Jim Peters said there were six incidents on Wednesday and several more earlier in the week. The pilots reported seeing green laser lights in their cockpits while on final approach.  It’s a violation of federal law to shine a laser at an aircraft.

Nationwide, reports of laser incidents have been increasing, according to the FAA. More than 5,000 incidents have been reported since 2005, including more than 2,200 in 2010 alone. Hand-held lasers have become cheaper and more powerful in recent years, Peters said.

SLATEThe FBI and Department of Homeland Security are warning law-enforcement agencies to look out for laser-wielding terrorists. Lasers, a recent memo states, could be used to blind commercial airline  pilots just prior to landing.

How feasible is this laser attack, really? Quite feasible, assuming the terrorists can get their hands on some military-grade hardware designed for exactly this purpose. The Chinese-made ZM-87 is perhaps the best known of these blinding weapons, also known as laser dazzlers. It was designed to foil night-vision equipment and burn the retinas of enemy troops and has an effective range of up to 10 kilometers.

None of this hardware is easily obtainable, so a terrorist might be more likely to invest in a consumer-grade laser system, of the sort used in outdoor light shows. Such systems can be had for as little as a few thousand dollars and pack enough eye-burning wallops to get the job done.

It’s also possible, albeit unlikely, that a high-powered laser pointer could wreak havoc on a pilot’s sight. There are some imported pointers that are unusually intense, and the FBI has warned that criminals may be bundling these devices together to create homemade dazzlers capable of reaching 1,500 feet into the air.

The trick, of course, is being able to hit the pilot square in the eyes through the cockpit glass—a feat that would require an extraordinary amount of luck. But it’s not impossible, as evidenced by a September incident near Salt Lake City International Airport in which a Delta Air Lines pilot suffered a burned retina due to a laser beam. The source of that laser is still unknown.

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