Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Set Phasers on Stupid

From the AP:

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Federal authorities Tuesday used the Patriot Act to charge a man with pointing a laser beam at an airplane overhead and temporarily blinding the pilot and co-pilot.

The FBI acknowledged the incident had no connection to terrorism but called David Banach’s actions “foolhardy and negligent.”

Banach, 38, of Parsippany admitted to federal agents that he pointed the light beam at a jet and a helicopter over his home near Teterboro Airport last week, authorities said. Initially, he claimed his daughter aimed the device at the helicopter, they said.

He is the first person arrested after a recent rash of reports around the nation of laser beams hitting airplanes.

So, how dangerous are laser beams aimed at aircraft? Let’s find out. Patrick Smith is an airline pilot and author of the column Ask The Pilot for Here’s his take on the threat lasers pose for aircraft.

Two weeks ago, in what was intended to be a preemptive snuff of a burgeoning spark of hysteria, I discussed the implausibility of terrorists using laser beams to down a commercial airliner. Unfortunately, lasers are back in the news again, now getting the full attention of the major press and television networks.

In the past week, no fewer than eight aircraft are said to have been targeted. These include a Cessna executive jet preparing to land at Teterboro, N.J.; a SkyWest commuter plane approaching Medford, Ore.; and a jetliner at 8,500 feet above Cleveland. On New Year’s Eve, a beam was aimed at a police helicopter over Trenton, N.J.


While these events are perplexing, and at least potentially dangerous, a presumed link to terrorist activity is, even if impossible to discount, still premature and wrongheaded. Alas that’s a bit like whispering into a hurricane here in 2005 America, where the T-word has been spliced into the very DNA of our collective societal psyche. Thanks to one day’s events more than three years ago, we’ve come to exist in a full-on reversion mode in which every anomaly that’s at once potentially harmful and not instantly solvable takes automatic cover beneath the dark cloak of “terrorism” — a paranoid pathology that shows no sign of relenting. We’ve concocted an upside-down religion, choosing to invest our faith in the cunning of an invisible adversary while disparaging our own voices of reason and good sense. At heart it’s an old story, fear of the unknown, taken to new and self-destructive heights in a politically charged climate.


According to the National Transportation Safety Board and the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, there is a docket of hundreds of laser events over the years, victimizing both civilian and military aircraft. Records at the NTSB cite more than 50 laser irradiations taking place around Las Vegas alone in a two-year span between 1993 and 1995. Ten years later a similar spate — albeit one less purely accidental, most likely the work of copycat pranksters — becomes a small-scale national security crisis.

And if there’s one thing each of those hundreds of events has in common, it’s a zero fatality rate. Crews have been left disoriented and in some cases injured, but not once did an airplane crash. “In certain circumstances,” reads the December DHS/FBI alert, “if laser weapons adversely affect the eyesight of both pilot and copilot during a noninstrument approach, there is risk of airliner crash.” Technically that’s accurate, though the “noninstrument approach” reference is only partly relevant. Conspicuous in almost all analyses of this weird brouhaha is a presumption that approach and landing are the ideal time for such an attack, when in fact takeoff would be the more opportune moment. But to truly grasp the improbability of a laser inducing a crash, one needs to understand those “certain circumstances.”

Hitting two pilots squarely in the face through the refractive, wraparound windshield of a cockpit would be extremely difficult and entail a substantial amount of luck, and a temporarily or partially blinded crew would still have the means to stabilize a climbing or descending airplane. Surviving even a worst-case attack would be challenging, but not impossible.


That’s giving them too much credit, frankly, and we’re plenty capable of keeping ourselves good and scared. In the meantime, our reaction to terror tends to be a quantum leap ahead of reality: iris scanning, biometric coding, elaborate plans to fly planes out of harm’s way by remote control. All of which miss the point.

Listen to Michael, an Airbus A320 pilot for a major U.S. airline (who asks to be kept otherwise anonymous): “Here we have cleaners and caterers able to board and roam through aircraft with no security screening whatsoever, yet people are worried about laser beams? Our priorities are insane.”

“In the hierarchy of threats,” adds a 747 first officer at a different carrier, “this one is pretty far down the list.”

Remember the woman who got all freaked out last year on the airplane because there were a lot of “Arabic-looking” men on her flight? They turned out to be a Syrian wedding orchestra – the Middle Eastern version of Tiny and His Polka Boys – on their way to a gig and yet she managed to earn her fifteen minutes of fame and freak out the gullible.

If history is any proof, terrorists have been woefully successful not with technology on the scale of a James Bond villain but with simple things like boxcutters and fertilizer. Why would they upgrade to something that requires a Ph.D. in applied physics when they know they can achieve their goals with a $1.95 tool from Wal-Mart?