Laser beam intrusion poses growing threat to passengers, pilots safety: Experts

Following the on March 28 incident in which Air India flight AI 746 from Agartala to Kolkata encountered a laser beam intrusion inside the cockpit during landing at Kolkata Airport that had occurred when the aircraft was 11 nautical miles away from the airport. Experts have raised concerns regarding the issue citing safety of passengers as pilots get blinded by laser beam intrusion during landing phase.

In the recent incident, a powerful laser directed skyward from somewhere around the airport beamed into the cockpit of the Air India flight and momentarily blinded the pilots as they were preparing to land at Kolkata airport on Thursday evening.

Meanwhile, last month, the pilots reported five similar cases.

The Incident:

The airline’s complaint to the airport operator was taken up with the airport police station. According to airport officials, “the pilot of flight AI 746 from Agartala to Kolkata encountered the problem when he was around 11 nautical miles or 20 km from the airport.”

According to the pilot’s statement to the police post the incident, the beam of light appeared to originate somewhere southeast of New Town. There were 146 passengers and six crew members on board the aircraft that touched down at 8.10 pm on Thursday.

“Laser intrusion is turning into a major menace at Kolkata airport. The matter was reported at the environment management committee meeting attended by Bengal home secretary Nandini Chakravorty. Since then, the problem has become more acute,” said an airline staffer. “Pilots earlier encountered the problem during festivals, like Durga Puja, Kali Puja and New Year, it has now been surfacing during the wedding season as well.” He added.

Experts raise concerns:

The incident has once again triggered alarm among airlines, pilots and experts about the increasing instances of violation of restrictions imposed on use of lasers near the airport. Another such incident was reported by an IndiGo pilot on March 15. Last month, five such cases were reported by pilots.

Capt. Mohan Ranganathan, an Industry expert in conversation with midday revealed, “If the laser beam is beamed at the cockpit, the pilot can be blinded temporarily and could lead having an accident as they would not be able to judge the landing if they are blinded. It takes some time for the blinding effect to wear off. The police are supposed to act immediately. The pilots report such incidents to the tower (ATC) and they give the position where they were, the police are supposed to act immediately which did not happen during the incident or even earlier Indigo Flight being beamed incident. If the aircraft is on an ILS (Instrument landing system) approach it will not be much of an issue but hand flying the aircraft in a blinded state can lead to an accident.”

Another senior aviation staffer currently working as a flight instructor for new pilots disclosed, “Imagine you are driving a car and suddenly someone flashes a laser beam on your face, naturally, you will be momentarily blinded. In case of a car, the vehicle is already on the ground but in case of an aircraft, the pilots have to bring the plane on the ground at a much higher speed than that of a car. On top of this, the pilots have to handle various buttons, switches and peddles alongside keeping an eye on the airspeed of the aircraft so that the wings do not stall (aircraft drops out of the air due to lack of airspeed over the wing).”

He added, “Once on ground, the pilots need to keep the aircraft stable on the runway using rudder paddles (controlled by legs) but if the blinding effect hasn’t worn off till this time, there is a possibility of the aircraft skidding off of the runway and much worse, colliding with another aircraft taxiing on a parallel taxiway next to the runway. Similarly, pilots in air also have to land the aircraft manually in case an ILS approach isn’t available at the airport due to lack of Localisers (radio beacon to guide the aircraft to the runway). In this case, pilots have to rely on the PAPI (Precision Approach Path Indicator) lights which the pilot will not be able to see in case of a blinding which can cause a major disaster.”

The fight instructor also added, “this is a very serious issue and needs to be dealt with such severity. Luckily during the Kolkata incident or other five incidents reported in the last month, there were no accidents.”

Another senior Pilot while talking to Midday said, “this is a very concerning issue. Not just at Kolkata airport but at any airport across India. People, while partying or booming lasers, do not realise that it might temporarily blind a pilot on its final approach to the runway. We have to not just land the plane safely but also make sure everything with the aircraft is in an `ok` condition before landing and complete the landing checklist so that the landing is a smooth one. If a laser beam blinds us during this sterile phase (any flight below an altitude of 10,000 ft, the cockpit of the flight is considered to be in a sterile phase and is a very crucial phase) of the flight, it can be very much disastrous. The pilot of base leg or final leg can miss the runway or even have the autopilot misconfigured in an attempt to configure it for landing. That way, it is not just the lives of souls on board (number of individuals on board) at stake but even the civilians as the misconfigured autopilot can make the aircraft crash into a building or even crash on a busy street which can cause mass casualty.”

Local Police speak:

Though all the complaints have been forwarded to Bidhannagar City Police, officers said it was challenging to identify the locations from where laser beams are directed skyward. “We had banned the use of all laser beams earlier. But people need to be aware of the problem it poses and stop using it during ceremonies and festivals,” a senior officer from Bidhannagar police airport division told mid-day.

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