Every fourth day in South Africa, a laser-wielding idiot tries to blind a pilot so that he crashes his plane, possibly killing all on board.
According to a report released by the Air Traffic and Navigation Services Company of South Africa (ATNS), there were 181 incidents of laser beams being aimed at pilots at major airports between January 1, 2010 and February 29.
Strong laser beams directed at an aircraft could temporarily or permanently blind a pilot, Allan van der Heiden, an investigation and standards specialist with the ATNS, said.
“A pilot can also be startled and lose night vision, which can actually lead to an aircraft crash.”
A laser beam did not have to be used at or near the airport to distract pilots, he said.
A blue laser could be used over an 80km distance and a green one could be used over 40km.
A permit is needed to purchase the specific hand-held laser devices, which emit strong green or blue beams that can be up to 3 000 times more powerful than a car’s lights and which are commonly used by stargazers.
But authorities say these are being sold on the sly.
Van der Heiden said the number of reported laser beam incidents was increasing annually and people who believed it was just a prank, could be behind most of these.
Margaret Viljoen, an executive committee member of the Airline Pilots Association of South Africa and an aircraft captain, said she had been a victim of three such laser beam “attacks”.
“It’s quite startling. It’s like being in a dark room and all of a sudden someone shines a bright light… it distracts,” she said.
“Unfortunately it happens in a critical phase of flight, so it’s not like you can wear special glasses (to stop the light).”
Viljoen said pilots sometimes switched off the exterior lights of an aircraft so that people on land with laser beams would have difficulty spotting the plane.
“But according to the law, you have to have the lights on. So in avoiding these people, you’re contravening the law. We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” she said.
Viljoen said aircraft crew were trained on what to do in the event of being lasered.
She said reports of lasers being used on aircraft had surfaced in the US about a decade ago and in South Africa about five years ago.
After the US attacks, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of South Africa had warned in a circular that the beams could result in temporary loss of vision and spatial disorientation and recommended that those exposed to the beam go for an eye examination afterwards.
Police spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Vincent Mdunge, said during the 2010 Fifa World Cup a man was arrested for shining a beam at a helicopter, blinding the pilot. At the time the pilot had complained that a light shining from the beachfront fan park was affecting his vision.
He said in Durban North two months ago, police received a complaint about laser interference but no-one had been arrested.
Pranksters could face a fine of at least R100 000 or a 10-year jail sentence.
“The shining of these lasers is not a game and people don’t realise the repercussions,” Mdunge said.
In the six-month period between September 2011 and the middle March this year, 93 incidents were reported in total with Cape Town topping the list with 56, Lanseria Airport coming in second with 13 and East London with eight.
Durban was still fourth in the rankings, tying with Port Elizabeth (6).
ATNS spokesman, Percy Morokane, said the laser beams referred to in the report were those used during outdoor events and affected the pilot at a critical stage of flight.
Airports Company South Africa spokesman in KZN, Colin Naidoo, said that shining a laser beam at an aircraft could render the aircraft unsafe especially when the pilot was about to land the aircraft.
After 44 years of flying retired pilot Peter Harvey said he had not heard of one incident: “It is highly probable but I have never experienced anything like it.”