Laser Beams

Owing to our nation’s everlasting fixation with terrorism — real or perceived — I’m forced to begin this column by talking about something that doesn’t deserve half a minute of our time: laser beams. If you caught the news over the past week or so, you heard the bizarre warning: terrorists may attempt to blind airline crews by aiming high intensity lasers through the cockpit windows during approach and landing.

I almost can’t believe I typed that sentence, but the paranoiacrats at the Department of Homeland Security, along with the FBI, passed along a memo claiming that terrorists — though it never admitted which ones, where, or how the agencies knew — have explored the viability of using laser devices as weapons. Lasers are able to cause temporary blindness and serious eye injury, the ramifications of which are obvious if involving an aircrew during a critical phase of flight.

Apparently a handful of laser incidents have taken place in the past few months. Most notably, a pilot was hurt by a beam shone into cockpit of a Delta Air Lines jet on approach into Salt Lake City. After landing safely, the first officer was found to have suffered a burned retina. Two other events reportedly occurred near the airport in Portland, Oregon.

But then, barely 48 hours after the laser story broke, officials began downplaying the report, admitting that it’s unclear whether what happened at Salt Lake City and Portland were the work of would-be saboteurs, pranksters, or errant beams from light shows like the type used at concerts. DHS reminds us that the laser memo was one of at least 160 bulletins released over the past two years. Sheer novelty, if nothing else, brought this one its fifteen minutes of fear. “We have no specific, credible information, says DHS spokeswoman Valerie Smith, in a report carried by the Associated Press, “suggesting that such plans are underway in the United States.”

Too late. The alert was hungrily picked up and disseminated by everybody from the AP to Wolf Blitzer (who apparently never learned his lesson after mouthing off about the alleged — and discredited — TWA flight 800 coverrup).

For the record, even a well-aimed laser would be highly unlikely to cause a crash. Hitting both pilots cleanly in the face, through a refractive wraparound windshield, would require a great deal of luck, and even a temporarily blinded crew would still have the means to avoid disaster. Do not equate the results of a laser strike with, for example, having to drive sightless through a busy intersection. Maintaining a jet’s stability would be challenging under the circumstances, but not impossible.

The idea of terrorists bothering with such a plan is tough to accept. Say there’s a 10 percent chance of a laser causing an accident. With limited resources and personnel, it’s doubtful terrorists are going to risk exposure on an operation with a 90 percent likelihood of failure. (From a technical standpoint, one thing I find interesting is the presumption that approach and landing are the implicitly apropos time for such an attack. In fact, takeoff would be the more dangerous moment.)

The DHS alert states that lasers are “relatively inexpensive, portable, easy to conceal, and readily available on the open market.” Yes and no. Powerful military-grade devices are in fact quite expensive and difficult to obtain. Cheaper, commercial versions are more widely sold, but also substantially less effective.

Sounds like the shoulder-fired missiles commotion all over again. Or, for that matter, fill in the blank with boxcutters, grenades, machine guns, shoe bombs, and every other variant of alleged terrorist weaponry. When and where does it end? No danger should be ignored, whether the schemings of actual terrorists or the work of teenage vandals with nothing better to do. But to our detriment, we remain pinned in a full and furious default mode, whereby every potential threat becomes, simultaneously, a looming “terrorist weapon” ready to plunge the nation into chaos.

“It’s really discouraging to hear the press talking about this,” says one active pilot of a major US airline, asking his identity not be revealed. “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.”

(I’ve said it before and will say it again: every American owes it to himself to rent a copy of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film “Brazil,” with its depiction of a cracked totalitarian state brought to hilarious madness in the name of security and control.)

Somewhat ironically, as a crewmember my one encounter with high-intensity lights was in the early 1990s, during an approach into Newark. Skirting the lower edge of Manhattan along the Hudson River, the beam from a light show atop the World Trade Center caught our turboprop briefly, filling the cockpit (and cabin) with a fiery incandescence. For a second or two, it felt as though we were flying through the flare of a giant matchhead. Then, without so much as a wobble of the wings, it was over. We adjusted our eyes and landed safely.

A notion: If it hasn’t happened already by the time you’re reading this, I predict our old friend Annie Jacobsen will stoke the dying coals with an inflammatory article about laser beams. Just a hunch, and you heard it here first. It’s just her style of controversy: ambiguously spooky, hard to totally disprove, and an easy target for cheap speculation.

For those who weren’t tuned in last summer, Jacobsen is the California woman whose relentless hyping of an inflight encounter with a rambunctious gang of Syrian musicians became a national security crisis.

Back in November, NBC’s “Law & Order” did its own roman-a-clef dramatization of the story. The show, in which a group of Middle Eastern band members are suspected of setting off a car bomb, borrows several details from the original “ordeal,” including the expired visas and the infamous cut-across-the-neck gesture. Ends up the villain was a suicidal mother of four. Doubtless Jacobsen was distraught to see her cause turned into a politically correct TV plot.

I’ll keep this brief, but over on Women’s Wall Street.com, Jacobsen’s multi-part reactionary tract is up to installment number ten, now described in less inflammatory, yet even more misleading terms, as the “Safety in the Skies Series.” In one of her latest pieces she describes a group of Middle Easterners casing about the aisles of a London-to-Washington flight with mysterious hand-held “devices.”

That Jacobsen’s weird crusade has been styled as a greater manifesto on air safety is at best exasperating, and at worst offensive to those who really care about such things. Her newest byline on Women’s Wall Street.com: “Annie Jacobsen writes about business, finance and terrorism for a variety of national and international magazines and webzines.” Which instances of “terrorism,” exactly, she has covered is not distinguishable.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.