Helicopters Magazine

Features Procedures Safety & Training
Shedding Some Light

May 4, 2010  By Matt Nicholls

Canadian rotary- and fixed-wing pilots face many challenges during daily operations, making strict operating procedures to ensure safe flights of paramount importance.

Canadian rotary- and fixed-wing pilots face many challenges during daily operations, making strict operating procedures to ensure safe flights of paramount importance.

And for rotary EMS and law enforcement pilots, who routinely carry out night operations in populated areas, there’s more at stake – which is why it’s disconcerting news to see a growing number of laser attacks directed at Canadian aircraft.

According to Transport Canada’s Civil Aviation Daily Occurrence Reporting System (CADORS) – which provides initial information on incidences involving Canadian-registered aircraft – there have been numerous laser attacks on rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft in several cities. Captain Barry Wiszniowski, chairman of the technical and safety division of the Air Canada Pilots’ Association, reports there have been more than 200 laser strikes since 2008. And while none has resulted in a serious accident, it’s a disturbing trend – one pilots and operators are coming to grips with.

One high-profile case occurred April 4 in Ontario’s Durham Region, when a 19-year-old man was arrested for allegedly pointing a hand-held laser at a police helicopter. Brendan Schoenwald faces numerous charges, including obstructing police, mischief to property and endangering life under the Criminal Code. He is also charged with dangerous behaviour under the Aeronautics Act, which carries a maximum fine of $100,000 or five years in prison.


The incident comes on the heels of a pair of highly publicized laser attacks in Sydney, N.S. on March 9, where an air ambulance leaving Cape Breton bound for Halifax was targeted, followed by an Air Canada Jazz flight at Sydney Airport. Police officers were dispatched to the scene in both instances but found nothing.

While most lasers are unregulated and are easily attainable by the general public, high-powered units are commonly used by amateur astronomers to sight telescopes or map out stars. These lasers emit a strong, green beam of light. New models due out later this year, will be even more powerful.

Not surprisingly, the most significant concern for pilots when encountering laser strikes is temporary loss of vision. Depending on the brightness level, lasers can startle the flight crew, or cause significant glare, making it difficult for the pilot to see. The illumination and glare, though short, can also create temporary blindness – flash blindness or an after image or both – making it difficult for pilots to function safely.

Another concern for operators is the possibility of short-term or permanent eye injury to the pilot, crew members or passengers. Such effects pose significant flight safety hazards when the cockpit workload increases, below 10,000 ft. AGL; in critical phases of flight (approach and landing); dense traffic areas (terminal environment and en-route areas); and in proximity to airports.

Walter Heneghan, Manager of Safety Systems for Canadian Helicopters Ltd., is quite familiar with the issue. In the past two years, Canadian Helicopters’ aircraft have been involved in several laser incidents. Last fall, pilot Kerrin Mobbs was grounded for approximately six months after being hit by an intense green stream of light while transporting a patient from Pembroke to the Ottawa Civic Hospital. And while Mobbs is back to work, he still has minor vision problems. “The next morning I had trouble focusing… I had to hold everything at arm’s length,” recalls Mobbs. “And doctors don’t realize what you’re referring to when you mention you’ve been hit with a laser. He thought I meant laser eye surgery.”

In working to raise awareness of what he aptly calls “a very serious issue,” Heneghan has encouraged municipal law enforcement agencies, Transport Canada officials and the Transportation Safety Board to help create strategies for mitigating the risk of lasers in the cockpit and to increase public awareness. He has drafted and circulated a detailed report to his pilots and encourages other operators to do the same.

Heneghan raised the issue during the Safety Committee meeting at the HAC Conference April 11-13 in Quebec City. “It’s true it affects a relatively small population base within HAC, the multi-IFR guys who are flying at night, while most of the operators aren’t,” he says, “but it needs to be discussed, and now it’s on the HAC’s radar.”

”It’s a significant issue… we’re trying to educate our pilots, we’re trying to educate the public, and we need to educate the police forces.”

Given its importance and potential consequences to both rotary- and fixed-wing pilots flying at night, such a proactive approach is a sound one – and Helicopters will continue to shed more light on the topic in the months ahead. We look forward to your feedback on the issue.

Matt Nicholls,Consulting Editor


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