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12/30/2004

Terrorist laser threat timeline

Green_laser_beam

As Drudge notes today, two more reports have surfaced regarding laser incidents in airline cockpits—so perhaps it would be useful to look at a timeline of recent activity:

September 22. The Transportation Security Administration investigates an incident in Salt Lake City where a pilot, making a night-time landing on a flight from Dallas, received a retinal burn from a laser somewhere on the ground. The incident took place about five miles from the airport.

November 7. Three commercial airliners at the San Diego Airport report seeing green lights coming from a direction northeast of the runway after departure.

November 9.  Flight crews on four aircraft in the vicinity of Houston International Airport observe a green laser light shining into the air near the Conroe, Texas area, about 25 miles northwest of the airport.

November 22. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security issue a joint bulletin entitled "Potential Laser Threat," warning that terrorists may be using military-grade laser blinding systems to bring down commercial aircraft. The bulletin states: "Although lasers are not proven methods of attack like improvised explosive devices and hijackings, terrorist groups overseas have expressed an interest in using these devices against human sight…. Severe eye injuries can result when individuals are exposed to these devices…. In certain circumstances, if laser weapons adversely affect the eyesight of both pilot and co-pilot during a non-instrument approach, there is a risk of an airliner crash.“

December 25. A Sky West pilot and co-pilot report seeing two laser-like lights in the cockpit while trying to land at the Medford, Oregon, airport. " The pilots described the light as a laser that entered the cockpit from the chief officer’s window and did not move off the aircraft, said Alison Gemmell, director of marketing and communication for SkyWest Airlines. The pilots reported the event to airport tower personnel, and the FBI was called in as a routine matter of notification, Gemmell said. SkyWest also has filed its own report, she added."

December 27. A Continental Airlines flight landing at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport reports a laser being shone into the cockpit. The incident is under investigation by the FBI. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports: "Agents say the green laser came from a Warrensville Heights neighborhood near Randall Park Mall as the plane traveled 300 mph at 8,500 to 10,000 feet. Pilots were not affected. The plane landed safely." (The Plain Dealer article also notes: "Fred Szabo, commissioner of Hopkins, said a laser has been aimed at an aircraft in Cleveland at least once before, but he would not provide details.") That same evening, two pilots on a flight to Colorado Springs report their cockpits being "filled with laser light." According to a story in The Denver Post, "authorities do not know what type of laser was used. Police would not disclose the altitude of the planes. Airport operations were not interrupted."

The Plain Dealer article suggests that such incidents have become quite common in recent years. "The Federal Aviation Administration has found hundreds of cases in which lasers have been pointed at planes since 1997, according to an agency report. In April 2003, the FBI said in a report that lasers are being pointed at planes 'at an alarming rate.' "

Speculation about the incidents has been escalating, especially regarding the types of lasers being used. In the recent Cleveland incident, the pilots reported a green laser beam, suggesting that it could something as simple as a laser pointer like this, or this. (As one ad says, "the intensity of the green beam is unbelievable, so powerful it can project a beam up to 3000 meters or 10,000 + ft. even under lighted conditions.") Other possibilities include commercially-available lasers for surveying and construction.

A more frightening scenario is that terrorists may have obtained a Chinese-produced ZM-87 laser blinder which is specifically designed to blind eyesight. (See my post "Blinded by the light" above for more info on military-grade lasers and their shadowy history.) The Japanese terrorist cult Aum Shinrikyo—which launched the infamous Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995—was discovered to have experimented with the use of lasers as weapons.According to The Asian Pacific Post, "Cult members apparently obtained laser design information from Russian institutes they visited and built a laser weapon mounted on a truck. They had planned to use the laser against Tokyo policemen, but the plan failed when the laser malfunctioned during the testing stage."

A 2000 report to Congress on China's military progress notes: "China is believed to have a highly developed electro-optic industry, as well as the ability to field blinding laser weapons, including tactical laser weapons. Beijing offered the ZM-87 neodymium laser blinder for sale at defense exhibitions in Manila and Abu Dhabi in 1995 and may be developing an advanced version of this system with improved range and antisensor capabilities. Although the ZM-87 is intended for use primarily against ground targets, it could be used against aircraft." [My emphasis.]

Earlier this month, Patrick Smith, Salon's "Ask the Pilot" columnist, poo-pooed the dangers of such attacks:

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.)

I tend to agree. If you want to bring down a plane, why bother with something as esoteric and unproven as a laser, when shoulder-launched missiles are much more lethal and reliable? Real terrorists, unlike their Hollywood counterparts, tend to prefer the simple, well-proven approaches over esoteric ones. The Department of Homeland Security evidently concurs, since it's already in the process of soliciting proposals for a system to defend airliners against ground-launched missiles.

All the same, the recent reports of lasers in the cockpit have to be worrisome for flight crews and air travelers alike, even if the perpetrators turn out to be nerdy Gen Xers wielding laser pointers.

UPDATE: BoingBoing has an interesting post this morning on the same subject, including a link to a website called lasershoppe.com, which has been selling a $600 green-diode laser that can allegedly burn a hole in a plastic cup. (I predict the site's owner will be hearing from the FBI soon, if he hasn't already.) BoingBoing also has a link to a story on CNN.com, which suggests that there have actually been half a dozen laser incidents in the cockpit in the last four days, according to an anonymous government source. " The incidents have happened "all over the place" and in "kind of odd places," the official said without elaborating. None of the flights was affected. The government official, who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity, said it was unclear whether this week's incidents were the result of 'kids who got a laser light for Christmas' or whether there is 'some deliberate attempt to target aircraft.' "

FURTHER UPDATE: Michelle Malkin also offers a round-up of information on lasers—which, remarkably, duplicates only a small part of what I've linked to above. (She's on to the lasershoppe.com guy too. But, pace Michelle, I'm not at all convinced he wouldn't sell one of those high-powered lasers to anybody who wanted one, provided the check cleared.) She also notes that Tom Clancy predicted this scenario too, in Debt of Honor.

FURTHER UPDATE: Michelle Malkin and retired U.S. Army Capt. Chuck Nash just appeared on Your World with Neil Cavuto (FOX News) to discuss the laser issue. Not much new here, but Michelle did add the intriguing thought that lasers might be used either in rehearsals for a future shoulder-launched missile attack and/or as a sighting device. (Captain Nash seemed to be a bit irked that he got upstaged by Michelle on this.) She also reiterated her assertion that lasershoppe.com has quit selling green lasers. That's not exactly what they're saying on their website, though, if you read the full disclaimer: "Unfortunately, we have decided to STOP selling these lasers to the general public. Too many people have been doing  stupid things with lasers recently, and this product is misunderstood. This laser DOES NOT pose a threat to airplanes or pilots, but due to the media hype and hysteria, I can't risk being blamed for such a thing. This laser does have the potential to do damage at close range however, and I  can't sleep at night thinking that  something I sold could fall into the  wrong hands and be used to hurt people. It's  unfortunate that that the actions of a  few idiots have caused me to take these steps. If you are a responsible adult, and you are willing to fax me a copy of your driver's license, a short essay on laser safety, and sign a waiver, then I will consider selling one of these lasers to you. Please email me if you want more information." All lasershoppe.com wants to do (as I read it, anyway) is to make sure they can deny culpability in the event that one of their lasers winds up causing a tragedy. I can't imagine that a photocopy of a driver's license, an essay on laser safety and a signed waiver would do a lot to deter the Mohammed Attas of this world. Hold the Mayo seems to agree with this assessment: "While I think it is good thing that a company like LaserShoppe has rethought its sales policy of blind trust unfortunately their efforts seem to be focused only on their liability."

FURTHER UPDATE: ABC News brings the count to seven incidents since Christmas: "The latest incident occurred Wednesday night at the Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, when the pilot of a business jet saw a laser light while approaching the runway. On Christmas Day there were three reported laser incidents at airports in Houston, Medford, Ore., and Washington, D.C. On Monday, two pilots reported seeing laser lights in their cockpits while flying into Colorado Springs, Colo. Both planes landed without incident." The FBI still doesn't believe the incidents are terrorism related, but the Air Line Pilots Association feels otherwise."The fact that they've been in different places in different times and now that they're increasing in number tells me this is more than just a coincidence," says Capt. Dennis Dolan, vice president of the pilots' union. TalkLeft poses the $64,000 question (or questions): "So if it isn't terrorists, then who? And why is the FBI sounding so unworried after all the false alarm terror threats of the past? This is rather uncharacteristic of them."

FURTHER UPDATE: Oddly, the MSM seems more focused on this story than the blogosphere. Google News lists 522 stories currently. Technorati lists just 490 post matching the words "laser" and "pilot." Could bloggers be starting their New Year's festivities early?

FURTHER UPDATE: Okay, this is weird. The 11:00 television news here in Pittburgh (WPXI) just reported an incident at Greater Pittsburgh International Airport. The laser beam allegedly came from Independence Township, just a few miles from where I'm writing this. Nothing about this on the web, at least that I can find right now. But that would bring the post-Christmas count to eight.

FURTHER UPDATE: Professor Bainbridge—who's never been really comfortable with air travel—is starting to get weirded out by the growing number of incidents (right along with the rest of us). "Just great," he writes. "I'm supposed to fly next week. This story … is making me rethink driving. I wonder what Tom Clancy would advise. BTW, is it just coincidence that the bin Laden family makes its money from construction, which just happens to be the industry in which this laser is used?"

Posted by Rodger on December 30, 2004 at 12:59 PM | Permalink

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