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Industry outraged over lasers aimed at aircraft

The danger of pointing lasers at aircraft, a potentially lethal action, has been roundly condemned by the aviation fraternity.

The outrage follows the arrest and subsequent court appearance of two men in Bloemfontein for pointing lasers at helicopters using Bloemfontein Airport and the adjacent Air Force Base Bloemspruit at the weekend.

Both the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Airline Pilots Association of SA (ALPA) have spoken out strongly against the practice, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in jail.

“It is a serious hazard to point laser lights at aircraft. It endangers the lives of aircrew, passengers as well as the public and property on the ground. We discourage it in the strongest possible terms and point out that those caught doing it and found guilty are subject to a hefty fine and up to 30 years in jail,” CAA’s Kabelo Ledwaba said.

ALPA general manager Sonia Ferreira said members were increasingly reporting incidents of “sudden and intense bursts of light, deliberately shone at aircraft in and around airports”.

She said pilot distraction and temporary blindness were immediate effects of aircrew being hit by lasers. “This poses significant safety risks.”

As far as can be ascertained only one arrest has previously been made for shining a laser.

The incident happened during the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup in Durban. CAA officials said yesterday they were attempting to track the case’s outcome.

More than 70 incidents of lasers aimed at the cockpits of aircraft on final approach were reported to Air Traffic and Navigation Services last year. The majority were in Cape Town, with incidents also reported at OR Tambo International, Pretoria’s Wonderboom and Lanseria International. Tender bulletins are an efficient way of notifying the public of tenders that have been issued by state departments and companies.

In the OR Tambo incident, a commercial airliner on final approach to touchdown had to perform a go-around after a laser was directed at the eyes of the flight crew.

“They were able to handle the situation and no-one was hurt, apart from some temporary blindness,” a pilot said.

Tracking down the so-called “laser spotters” is made difficult by the fact they usually do their pointing from vehicles and drive away.

In the Bloemfontein incident it appears one of their “targets” was a police helicopter, fitted with sophisticated tracking equipment.

“From there on it was easy,” a comment on an aviation forum said. “The laser position was plotted within seconds and passed on to a ground-based team who knew exactly where to find the culprits.”