Pranksters With Lasers in Singapore Pose Aviation Safety Threat

There’s a threat in the Singapore night sky.

Laser pointers are now a safety hazard as flashing the pen-sized gadgets at aircraft has become a pasttime for some. Pilots flying over the city-state have reported being disoriented or momentarily blinded by the bright lights shone into the cockpit.

“It’s concentrated energy being put into the eye,” Sean O’Byrne, a lecturer at the University of New South Wales specializing in lasers, said by phone. “Because they’re lasers, they don’t spread out like a torch, so they can travel very large distances without losing too much of their energy.”

In a country ranked top in regulatory enforcement, and where public protests take place after permits are granted, authorities haven’t been able to stamp out the problem. The number of cases stayed constant in the past two years amid a public campaign on the dangers of lasers directed at planes in Singapore, which is spending about S$4 billion ($2.9 billion) to expand Asia’s second-busiest international airport.

“Most of the time, the culprits are individuals such as young people who are simply up to mischief and unaware of the risks,” Alan Tan, a professor of aviation law at the National University of Singapore, said in an e-mail.

In June, the city-state distributed flyers on the potential hazards of laser lights, focusing on households close to Changi Airport. It also has made a YouTube video detailing the dangers, installed signboards in coastal parks near the airport and is carrying out ground patrols.

The authority says the reported color of the lasers is usually green. These are commonly used by astronomy enthusiasts to point out objects in the sky and can be bought online.

‘Green Sun’

Tracy Lamb, a pilot with 18 years of experience, was on the final approach to Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport before nightfall in December 2013 when she saw a green light glowing close to the control tower. She didn’t have time to look away before it hit her eyes.

“It was like looking at a green sun. It was dazzling and disorienting,” she said in an e-mail. “I became incapacitated. It was all white and blurry shapes.”

Lamb said she had to retract the aircraft flaps “by feel” after the captain landed the plane safely. For days afterward, she saw spots in front of her eyes.

Powerful lasers have an output of more than 5 milliwatts and are able to burst balloons, burn paper, ignite matches and even blind people, the Singapore aviation authority says.

A 50-milliwatt model was listed on the retail site with a price tag of S$20.90.

Gum Mischief

Anyone convicted in Singapore of shining a laser light at an aircraft could be fined as much as S$20,000. Repeat offenders face a S$40,000 penalty and 15 months in jail.

Acts of mischief involving chewing gum led Singapore to curb its sale and import in 1992. The ban came a year after gum stuck between subway train doors caused multiple disruptions. Repeat offenders of the ban risk a fine of as much as S$200,000 and three years in jail.

The city’s aviation regulator says there were 25 cases of laser lights striking aircraft last year and in 2013, down from a peak of 45 a year earlier. Five were reported in the first six months.

Singapore’s experience reflects a problem that also has plagued authorities in other countries.

Laser strikes on aircraft in the U.S. have surged more than 10-fold in less than a decade despite a public education campaign, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Singapore Airlines Ltd. recorded 53 instances of laser lights flashed on aircraft across its global network in the past seven years, Nicholas Ionides, a company spokesman, said in an e-mail. Twelve occurred in the past year, with three within Singapore’s airspace. None resulted in injury to pilots.

While commercially available lasers are strong enough to damage the retina if viewed up close, the greater risk for pilots who are further from the light source is dazzle and disorientiation, said University of New South Wales’s O’Byrne.

“They are extremely bright and they tend to diffuse through the window and fill the cabin with light,” he said. “It’s extremely irritating and very distracting.”

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