Written by Loretta Haring
Office of Strategic Planning and Communication, Acquisition Directorate
“Laser strikes force U.S. Coast Guard helicopter missions to abort.” “Laser used to blind Coast Guard aircrew during search.” “Lasers disrupt rescues, put Coast Guard and boaters at risk.”
The headlines started appearing with some regularity in 2011, highlighting a growing problem: people who target Coast Guard aviation crews in flight with laser pointers.
Laser strikes are a safety concern for both commercial and military aviation because direct eye strikes can result in temporary flash blindness or eye damage, depending on the strength of the laser.
“If these deleterious effects occur during a critical phase of flight such as landing or taking off, the results could be catastrophic,” said Cmdr. Christopher Wright, chief of the Coast Guard’s Safety Program Management Division.
The Office of Safety and Environmental Health is the sponsor of a market research project nearing completion by the Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center in New London, Connecticut, to identify viable laser eye protection solutions for integration into Coast Guard aircraft.
“In the end, we want to minimize the potential risk of aircrews receiving direct laser eye strikes and reduce the level of harmful effects if an aircrew is exposed to any form of laser energy source,” Wright said.
It is a federal crime, as well as violation of most states’ laws, to aim a laser pointer at an aircraft. If an individual is caught purposefully lasing an aircraft, conviction can lead to up to five years in prison or a fine up to $250,000 as well as the possibility of a civil penalty of $11,000. The Federal Aviation Administration received reports of 6,753 laser illumination incidents involving aircraft in 2017.
During fiscal year 2015 there were 52 reported incidents of people aiming lasers at Coast Guard aircraft during flight. No crew members sustained permanent injury, but temporary injuries requiring medical treatment did occur. Most events occurred between 7 and 10 p.m. local time. Air Station Atlantic City, New Jersey, reported the most incidents with 14, followed by Air Station Borinquen, Puerto Rico, with eight.
Laser eye strikes can lead to permanent eye injury from the more powerful lasers if there is direct or prolonged exposure. With any type of exposure to lasers, crew members can experience temporary flash blindness, after image and headaches. Coast Guard flight rules require an aircraft to abort its mission if any crew member’s vision has been compromised. If the lasing occurs during a search and rescue mission, there is the potential for a critical delay while another crew is dispatched. Crew members are removed from flight duty until they are medically cleared to fly again, which could lead to a shortage in personnel. Finally, dispatch of a second crew adds thousands of dollars to the cost of the rescue mission.
The standard laser eye protection on the market is not viable for use by Coast Guard pilots because it blocks out too much light, according to Lt. Dillon Sapp, the RDC’s program manager for the Cockpit Laser Strike Protection project. Many search and rescue cases are conducted in low-light conditions, so the RDC needed to find options that would provide the necessary eye protection for pilots while still allowing the level of visibility needed for operational awareness and to see the many indicators used during SAR missions.
For this project, the RDC utilized Cooperative Research and Development Agreements, which promote the transfer of technology with the private sector. One of the options the RDC explored is a flexible optical filter that is reflective of lasers only and has just a slight tint, so it doesn’t interfere with the pilot’s visibility. The material can be applied to any transparent surface, such as the cockpit windshield, to deflect harmful laser beams and prevent them from reaching the inside of the cockpit.
Once finalized, the RDC findings will be integrated into an ongoing laser eye protection project the Office of Safety and Environmental Health is conducting in partnership with the Naval Aeromedical Research University in Dayton, Ohio, and the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
“Near-term products will most likely be laser eye protection eyewear or visors, coupled with laser protective coatings for the aircraft windshields in the long term,” said Wright.
Wright stressed the value the Research and Development Program brings to the Coast Guard.
“The Coast Guard truly benefits from RDC’s research since they are able to analyze and identify effective solutions to operational gaps affecting crew performance or effective mission accomplishment,” said Wright. “Without the ability to have a dedicated research body focused on solving Coast Guard operational safety issues or mission challenges, our organization would lack the capacity to rapidly mitigate safety hazards or eliminate barriers to effective mission execution.
“The RDC is a true force multiplier for both the operational and support communities,” continued Wright. “We rely heavily on the analytical rigor of the RDC team as they tackle some of the most critical barriers to safe and effective Coast Guard operations.”