A shop assistant shines a laser beam on a dark surface to show its effect.

ESTHER LEWIS and BRONWYNNE JOOSTE

Staff Reporters

The safety of thousands of aircraft passengers across South Africa is being threatened by the illegal use of hand-held lasers, which are temporarily blinding pilots.

Up to 12 incidents a week are reported countrywide, say aviation authorities.

One pilot describes the practice of shining laser beams into the cockpit as planes come in to land as a “very dangerous fad”.

The penlight lasers are intended for use by stargazers to point out stars and constellations, and at night can have a range of 50km.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) confirmed it had received complaints about laser beams being shone at aircraft, blinding the pilots as they came into land.

The Airline Pilots’ Association of SA (Alpa SA) has provided a more detailed report, saying it receives between 10 and 12 complaints each week. Airports at Cape Town, Joburg, Durban and Lanseria are the hot spots and the association is calling for a ban on the sale of the lasers.

Today Margaret Viljoen of Alpa SA said: “We believe that many of these actions may be intended as pranks, but the public needs to be reminded that their actions may be criminal and could lead to fatal consequences.

“We intend to urge the police to investigate this trend and ensure that recalcitrant members of the public who point lasers at aircraft are tracked down and criminally charged.”

Viljoen said the association received between 10 and 12 complaints a week. She said there had a temporary drop in incidents after the issue was reported in the media a month ago. However, incidents were on the rise again, with three complaints received in two days recently.

Viljoen said the figure was probably much higher because in the case of big airlines, pilots logged incident reports directly with their relevant airline.

She said that in some cases, the pilot was temporarily blinded and could not land. Worse, the pilot could be permanently blinded.

Measures like tinted glasses or windows were not ideal as “pilots have to be able to see clearly”.“We need to educate the public and outlaw the sale of these lasers.”

CAA spokesman Kabelo Ledwaba said a few cases had been reported since last year.

In the US it is a federal offence to point the laser pen at aircraft. Some states in Australia have classified it as a “prohibited weapon” and being caught with one without a permit could mean 14 years in prison.

Ledwaba said South Africa was a signatory to the International Civil Aviation Organisation and if it introduced new standards or regulations regarding lasers, the CAA would definitely look into implementing it in South Africa.

Corporate pilot Henri Pienaar, who has twice had a laser beam shone at him just before landing in the city, described the practice as a “very dangerous fad”.

He said all aircraft landing at Cape Town International Airport turned at the same point, about seven minutes before they touched down. It was at this point that they were being targeted.

Pienaar, who has been flying since 1998, reported his incidents to the Air Traffic Navigation Service, who reported them to the CAA.

“This is a potential danger and something should be done about it. The people doing this have got to realise they are putting people’s lives in danger,” Pienaar said.

He added that while it would be difficult to pinpoint the exact location of the beam, it appeared to come from the Kraaifontein area.

Another pilot, who did not wish to be named, said: “Why are the authorities waiting for something to happen before they do anything about it?”

People who shone lights at pilots could be criminally charged, warned Ledwaba. He said it contravened two sections of the Civil Aviation Regulations. If found guilty, offenders could be fined or imprisoned for up to 10 years, or both.

Mango spokesman Hein Kaiser said they had had “infrequent instances” of laser strikes and each had been reported.

Comair, which operates British Airways locally and kulula.com, said it had received no complaints from flight crew.

SAA did not respond to requests for comment.

During the World Cup last year, Yusuf Ebrahim, 35, was arrested for shining a laser at the Durban beachfront, which temporarily blinded a helicopter pilot.

Anyone who witnesses the practice can e-mail [email protected] or fax 011 545 1453.