Ah, Flight 999 You Are On Terrorist Laser Approach ... Close Your Eyes ...

Somehow this topic only appears as a driveby in this thread, but it deserves better.

Source: http://www.cnn.com/2004/US/12/09/terrorist.laser.ap/

Something smells here.

Same source.

But this part of the story really raises the BS meter …

Source: http://washingtontimes.com/national/20040928-111356-3924r.htm

We have quite a few pilot dopers here who I am asking for input. I had a conversation at work with a retired Air Force flight mechanic. He explained basic flight dynamics to me during takeoff, in flight and landing. Then he offered this question to me (paraphrasing), “A commercial pilot reports being blinded by a laser five miles from landing at night. Now what organization has that capability?”

BTW, a check with the US Naval Observatory finds that on 22 September 2004, sunset in Salt Lake City occurred at 7:24 pm, local time, followed by the end of civil twilight at 7:51 pm, local time. The media reports the aircraft in question landed at approximately 9:30 pm, local time. One can surmise the incident took place within 10 minutes of landing, or about two hours after local sunset.

So what organization really does have the capability to blind a commercial pilot flying a 737 two hours after sunset on final approach five miles from landing?

I think I heard a news story today which quoted the Janes people as saying that it was essentially impossible. They even poo-pooed the latest news reports. Can’t find a cite right now.

Won’t the planes still be quite high 5 miles from an airport?
You’ll need a pretty powerful laser to do any damage if you also consider you’ll have to be far away to shine into the cockpit from the ground.

I don’t think its impossible.

Out here in Vegas the Luxor had a giant laser shooting out the top of it. They replaced the laser with a giant light because pilots coming into McCarren were complaining of the laser refracting off of clouds and causing vision problems on the approach. (Sorry, can’t find a cite. But I was living out here when the whole thing happened)

Granted, it would take a big laser.


Not necessarily. You could strap the laser onto a trained hawk, and then sic it on the plane. I suspect Dr Evil’s behind this whole thing.

I discussed blinding/dazzling lasers in a thread about weapons tech.


I don’t understand why the OP is arguing that this incident allegedly happening at night is such a big deal. I have no idea what types of lasers would be required for such a feat, but it seems to me that night is the easiest time to spot aircraft from a fair distance, especially large aircraft entering the pattern.

After I first got my private license, I preferred to fly at night because it was so much easier to spot aircraft, what with the strobes, landing lights, navigation lights, etc. Heck, around these parts, you can easily see aircraft lining up at night for their approach to National Airport from 10 miles, if the weather is clear.

Or maybe I’m missing a point here?

I am not arguing the technical aspects of using lasers to blind pilots. I’m arguing do terrorists have the technology to do what the government says they can do. Don’t look at the issue from the point of what the US military has done with laser technology as weapons. Look at it from the perspective as to who else has that level of technology, and has it within the US.

Ravenman as a pilot, do you honestly think terrorists have the technology to lockin on a landing commercial aircraft from five miles out at night and fill a 737 cockpit with laser light so as to blind a pilot? If they can, then we are in a whole lotta world of hurt.

If they have they level of technology, they’ve certainly got big bucks to acquire it. The ROI doesn’t make sense. It is certainly cheaper and they’d get more bang for the buck by hijacking full tanker trucks and blowing them up during rush hour.

My ex-Air Force friends tell me it’s government scarmongering again.

Cite that the government “says they can do” anything?

My common sense tells me this is standard-issue low-level threat investigation, and that the OP is anti-government scaremongering.

Yet, it’s played in the media that we should be concerned about planes crashing right now. My local TV news does not cite the rest of the memo about the potential use of lasers as weapons. The thrust of the TV news stories only addresses the here and now.


Well, sure. As I said in the Pit thread, that’s the media playing on it for shock value, wanting the yahoos to think Bin Laden has death rays. But you can’t blame “the government” for what Action News does.

Five miles back from landing in a large jet, the plane will be no more than a couple of thousand feet in the air. Shining a laser into that cockpit shouldn’t be all that difficult. If the pilot can see the ground from his seated position, a laser on the ground can see his eyes.

I work in a high rise right beside a municipal airport. Aircraft up to 737’s use it. and they actually pass our tower lower than our floor in some cases. And sometimes quite close - a couple of thousand feet away. If I had a big powerful laser in my office, I’ll bet I could hit a few cockpits if I really wanted to.

The real question is whether or not this is an effective tactic, considering that you have to blind both the pilot and co-pilot. Not likely. And if you really started zapping them, they could just execute a missed approach, go around, and do it again. Or go to another airport. Unless your laser is powerful enough to blind them instantly and permanently, this isn’t going to cause a crash, and possibly not even then.

If a pilot was hit with a laser, it’s more likely that it was just some random dickhead with a 3mW laser from Edmund scientific thinking he’s ‘cool’ or something.

The ground is a much larger target than the pilot’s eyes, to state the obvious. Also, unlike the ground the pilots eyes are a moving target. Hitting a rapidly moving target the size of a marble from five miles away, for a long enough interval of time to actually blind a pilot, doesn’t strike me as likely.

As Sam Stone said, all they they have to do if that happened is pull up and point the plane in another direction if that happened. Even commercial jets are plenty manuevable to do that if it was a matter of life and death. All commercial airliners have an alternate destination in place and they could just head to that one. ATC would be notified and no airplanes would be allowed to land at that airport until the source was found. It might result in terror but certainly no crashes.

I want to know what lasers the terrorists have that are that powerful. If they are that powerful, shouldn’t they just be a tiny beam of light. That is what lasers do. If it is a tiny beam of light, then I cannot see how they can plan to take out the pilot and the co-pilot to even have a lottery ticket’s chance of hurting anyone.

You don’t have to be five miles away. You could be anywhere along the final flight path. So you might only be aiming at something half a mile away. Mount a rifle scope on the laser, put it on a tripod, and no problem. It might be hard to hit consistently. The jet isn’t going to be generally bouncing around much on final either. It’ll be on a constistent 3 degree glideslope. And it’s not like a rifle where you only get a discrete shot. The laser is on continuously, and you can sweep it around the cockpit area over and over again until you hit someone’s eyes.

I don’t think it’s actually likely that this is a terrorist issue, because it seems pretty ineffective to me. But I don’t think it would be that hard to hit the cockpit.

We have houses about half a mile away from our backyard, and I can hit them pretty easily with a laser pointer. And once I hit the house and can see where I’m aiming, I can zero in on some pretty small areas. So it’s doable - just not likely to cause a crash.

We don’t know that thay have any at all. Presumably you mean “could have”

It occurs to me that it’s also possible that what hit the pilot’s eyes was a laser rangefinder, something like this. Or it could be a military laser rangefinder - possibly from a defensive system, or from a missile. Could be a terrorist on the ground with a laser rangefinder working out angles for taking a shot at a plane.

There are just so many things out there that use lasers these days, plus powerful lasers in the hands of kids and idiots, that jumping to conclusions about terrorists or nefarious military lasers just isn’t warranted.

Why bother with a laser? Ever read Clancy’s Debt of Honor? A couple of guys (CIA) used a powerful spotlight to flashblind pilots on final approach. It was combined with another plot point that ensured the pilots would be VFR on approach, but the principle holds.

The correct answer is, “Any laser they want to have”. Lasers are widely available to the general public, even in relatively high power.

For example, this company will sell you a gas laser. $7,500 gets you a 5W argon laser - and that is a POWERFUL laser - about 10,000 times more powerful than your typical laser pointer, and easily capable of doing serious eye damage from a long distance.

But Sam Stone, I don’t see how you are going to hit and airliner for any length of time and especially not the cockpit. Those jets are approaching at close to 200 mph and at several miles range. Furthermore, the angle that a terrorists would have to use would usually be to the side of the airport making a direct shot in the eye very difficult. Commercial airliner windshields tend to be very small with a division between the pilot and co-pilot’s section. Also, isn’t the very definition of a laser that it has a very focused beam. That means that you can’t use one to take out the pilot and the copilot at the same time. Even if terrorists started to, either of the pilots can simply turn away from it. I cannot see how this was possibly bring down an airliner. It could potentially annoy or piss people off but that is a far cry from causing a crash.