In the last seven months, the South African Civil Aviation Authority has recorded 102 incidents of lasers being shone at aircraft, prompting the Authority to launch an awareness campaign on the dangers of dazzling pilots.
Yesterday the SACAA, the Air Traffic and Navigation Services (ATNS) company, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Airline Pilots’ Association of South Africa (ALPA) held a press conference on the matter. Zakhele Thwala, Director of the SACAA, warned of the potential disasters if laser beams continue to be directed at aircraft by civilians on the ground.
Thwala said that the aviation industry has great concern about the illegal use of laser beams – ATNS reported 102 incidents to the SACAA between December 2011 and the end of June this year. ATNS noted that from January 1, 2010, until February 29, 2012, there have been 181 reported laser attacks at some of South Africa’s major airports.
ATNS said that Cape Town International Airport has had the highest number of reported events, with 106 (or 58.56%) incidents between January 2010 and February 2012, followed by Lanseria Airport at 21 (or 11.06%) of incidents. OR Tambo International and East London Airports are joint third with 14 (or 7.73%) reported incidents each.
ATNS said that while most laser attacks were directed at aircraft on final approach, other low-flying aircraft such as police and ambulance or rescue helicopters are also targeted at times. There have also been incidents where lasers were directed at air traffic control towers.
Thwala warned that flashing a light beam or other energy source, whether visible or not, towards any aircraft, air traffic control tower or any person therein is prohibited by the Civil Aviation Regulations and contravention could result in a fine or imprisonment of ten years, or both.
To date there have been no prosecutions for shining lasers at aircraft in South Africa. However, there have been three arrests. One occurred during the Soccer World Cup in 2010 at a Fan Park in Durban, KwaZulu Natal. Currently, there is a pending case in the Bloemfontein Courts. Two people were arrested during the ANC Centenary celebrations for shining lasers at aircraft.
Hennie Marais, an Executive from Air Traffic Management, said that when a flight deck is illuminated, the bright light inside is a distraction to both pilots and air traffic controllers and these incidents could result in catastrophic events taking place.
Captain Margaret Viljoen, who represented ALPA, has experienced this herself, and added that pilots could lose their configuration while being blinded by the light, and that this usually happens during the critical phases of takeoff and landing. A few years ago, ALPA already embarked on a project to prepare pilots for such situations. Pilots also have to inform air traffic control and the police of such incidents. ALPA emphasised the need for the public to have a greater understanding of the significance of laser beam flashing at aircraft.
Aletta Karsten, a laser physicist from the CSIR, condemned the irresponsible use of laser pointers on behalf of the CSIR, and called upon the public to report anyone engaging on such activities. Providers and users of laser pointers are legally obligated to be registered at the Department of Health. She explained that strong laser pointers directed on the retina of the eye cause permanent damage and therefore lasers should not be used as toys. Although a direct hit into the eyes of a pilot is unlikely, she agreed that the distraction is problematic.
Thwala emphasised that the Police and the judiciary system see these incidents in a serious light; however the difficulty lies in apprehending the perpetrators. The CAA’s awareness campaign will promote public awareness, which in turn could lead to the arrest of those involved in irresponsible laser-beaming incidents.
ATNS urged people not to buy powerful laser devices and to report the selling of them to the police.