Ground-to-air lasers: dangers, what you need to know

Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C. --

Imagine you’re F-15E Strike Eagle aircrew performing complex maneuvers in the black of night when all of suddenly an intensely bright light blasts the cockpit.

Your windshield is instantly turned opaquely green, you’re temporarily blinded and your eyes immediately sting.

You are the victim of a ground-to-air laser attack.    

These kinds of attacks can threaten the mission of the 4th Fighter Wing, national defense and combatant commander’s objectives at overseas locations.

The 4th FW operates F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft, with a mission of providing dominant Strike Eagle airpower - anytime, anywhere.

The F-15E is a dual-role fighter, worth more than $31 million, designed to perform air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Recently, members of the 335th Fighter Squadron flew more than 1,200 sorties into Iraq and Syria in support of OPERATION INHERENT RESOLVE. They dropped more than 2,000 bombs on various Islamic State of Iraq and Syria targets, including oil fields, oil transportation, and cash reserves.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, sudden exposure to laser radiation during a critical phase of flight can distract or disorient a pilot and cause temporary visual impairment.

“FAA flight simulator studies have shown the adverse visual effects from laser exposure are especially debilitating when the eyes are adapted to the low-light level of a cockpit at night,” according to Laser Hazards In Navigable Airspace published by the FAA. “Similar to a camera flash at close proximity or the high-beam headlights of an oncoming car, recovering optimal visual performance after exposure to laser light may take from a few seconds to several minutes.”

The three most commonly reported physiological effects associated with laser exposure are: glare, flash-blindness and afterimage.

Capt. Matthew Kessler, 335th FS weapon systems officer, and 1st Lt. Luke Villalobos, 335th FS pilot, recently experienced a laser attack in January 2017 while flying a night sortie during a training mission.

“We’re [trained] to look away, but the light looks so odd because it’s so bright that you’re almost drawn to it like a moth to a flame,” said Kessler. “If it’s your first time being lased, then a second or more usually passes before you realize what it is and look away.”

Once the laser has stopped, aircrew are instructed to note the time, the aircraft’s parameters, and the origin of the laser. That information is then passed on to the aircrew’s operations supervisor who passes it on the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.

Upon return to the base, the aircrew immediately visit the flight doctor who checks for eye damage. 

In this particular incident, neither of the aircrew suffered lasting damage to their eyesight. However, the situation could have had a different outcome all together; loss of life and severe damage to government equipment.

Over a 20-year period, the FAA collected 3,000 reports of illumination events from both military and civil sectors, to include law enforcement and medevac flights.

“Illumination reports often describe several types of adverse effects,” according to Laser Hazards In Navigable Airspace published by the FAA. “These include visual effects, pain and/or possible injury, and operational problems. Operational problems include momentary distraction, disorientation resulting in another pilot assuming control, aborted landings, loss of depth perception, and shutting down a runway due to multiple laser strikes.”

In the United States, lasing an aircraft is a crime under the Code of Federal Aviation Regulations 14 CFR 91.11, which prohibits interfering with a flight crew operating an aircraft. In 2011, the FAA called for stiff civil penalties, up to $11,000 per violation, for anyone deliberately shining a laser at an aircraft.

Kessler warns that people might think they’re just highlighting airplanes as they flyby, but aircrew members have sustained damage to their eyes which caused employment termination, or worse in some cases, permanent blindness.

“We put a lot of time and energy away from our families to do what we do, whether civilian or military aviators, and [someone pointing a laser] could ruin it in a matter of seconds,” said Kessler. “This not only effects my family in the long term, but how am I supposed to land a multi-million dollar warplane if I’m blinded? If we are put in harm’s way, it should be when we’re fighting threats like ISIS, not from a child or adult with a laser pointer in our own backyard.”

If you witness an individual aiming a laser at an aircraft, the FAA asks you to send an email to laserreports@faa.gov and include the following information:

  • Name:
  • Contact information:
  • Date and time you witnessed the laser incident:
  • Description of the incident:

If more information is needed, a member of the FAA staff or an appropriate law enforcement agency may contact you for additional information or clarification. 

For more information visit www.faa.gov/aircraft/safety/report/laserinfo