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Federal Aviation Administration

What Pilots See When You Shine a Laser Pointer at Aircraft

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Federal Aviation Administration

Michael Brandon Smith was standing in his driveway one afternoon, beer in one hand and laser pointer in the other. Bored, he decided to see if the pocket-sized novelty could reach the helicopter passing overhead.

It could. He knew because a short time later, police were knocking on Smith’s door. Not long after that, Smith was sentenced to two months of house arrest and two years’ probation. The helicopter was a St. Louis police transport responding to a burglary call; it had to divert when the laser pointer temporarily disoriented its occupants.

Ever since laser pointers were introduced as a cheap, consumer-use trinket in the 1990s, there’s been a human tendency to point them at things: other people, animals, and, more recently, aircraft. While driving Mr. Mittens to exhaustion with a dot can be fun, the latter is a federal offense and quite possibly the lamest explanation you could ever give to another inmate.

On the ground, laser pointers appear to have a weak, diluted projection. That’s because general consumer-use pointers are not allowed to exceed 5 milliwatts (mW). But people tend to underestimate just how far the light can be thrown, or what happens to it once it settles on a passing airplane or helicopter. The FBI arranged for a video to demonstrate:

FBI

That "weak” light originating from the ground not only reaches the cockpit of planes, it’s also magnified considerably by their Plexiglas windows. The pilot’s field of vision is compromised as the light comes in bursts, a strobe effect the FBI has compared to setting off a camera flash in a dark room. At distances of up to 1200 feet, it can engulf a cockpit. It remains a distraction hazard all the way up to 12,000 feet.

While the practice has yet to result in an accident, pilots have been forced to change course; more than 35 have required medical attention, which is why both the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the FBI have taken extraordinary measures to try and dissuade people from pointing them at planes—a bizarre habit officials have called “lasing” that resulted in nearly 4000 reported cases in 2013 alone.

Smith was using a consumer-grade pointer; the FBI looks unkindly towards anyone using a commercial model. (Though legal to own, they’re not intended to be marketed as “pointers.”) In 2012, 19-year-old Adam Gardenhire received 30 months in federal prison for distracting pilots with a powerful laser. That same year, Sergio Rodriguez was arrested for the same crime, using a device 13 times more potent than the norm. He got 14 years.

What motivates people to do this is somewhat of a mystery. The FBI solicited comment from perpetrator Jason Stouder, who told them that he was just “admiring” the laser. He wanted to see “how far it goes and what it hit. The helicopter flew by and I made the decision to see if it would reach the helicopter. Obviously it did. But, in viewing the video I had no idea it illuminated the whole cockpit and blinded everybody inside.”

While it can be difficult to isolate a pointer's whereabouts, GPS tracking in helicopters can usually narrow down a location, as in the cases of Stouder and Smith. (If someone is pointing it at planes, officials can dispatch a helicopter to see if they can get a “hit” from the attacker.)

Some lawmakers want to see pointers greater than 5 mW banned outright. Charles Schumer, U.S Senator from New York, called for their prohibition after four planes at La Guardia were targeted last May.

That probably wouldn’t go over well with laser enthusiasts who use units up to 1000 mW (1 watt) for science experiments. In New South Wales, Australia, where pointers above 1 mW have been banned since 2008, a black market has cropped up, potentially making the situation worse: high-powered lasers are being imported and sold as low-watt units.

Because pinpointing offenders can be difficult, the FBI offers a $10,000 reward for information leading to a laser-related arrest.

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History
Uncovered WWII Blueprints Could Be Used to Restore a Mosquito Plane
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Airbus uncovered something unexpected while shuttering its factory in Flintshire, UK: a trove of aircraft blueprints dating back to World War II. Though the sketches are nearly 70 years old, a team of aviation enthusiasts wants to use them to get an iconic plane back in the air today.

The old technical drawings, of which there are 20,000, include blueprints for the de Havilland Mosquito, Atlas Obscura reports. During the 1940s, the British aircraft performed many roles for the Allied forces as a fighter, bomber, and reconnaissance plane. Even more impressive than its capabilities was its design: Constructed almost entirely from balsa and plywood, it earned the nickname “The Wooden Wonder.” The plane has earned cult status in aviation circles in the time since, and there’s even a group, the People’s Mosquito, dedicated to rebuilding a Mosquito that crashed in 1949.

The wooden body that makes the vessel famous also makes it notoriously difficult to preserve. Many metal aircraft from World War II are still around today, while most of the Mosquitos have rotted beyond recognition. In the face of such challenges, the People's Mosquito team views the newly discovered blueprints as a game-changer. The group's operations director, Bill Ramsey, described the find to BBC Radio as “a complete collection of drawings for every mark and modification that was ever made to a Mosquito.”

If the project members can successfully restore the plane to its former glory, it will be one of four Mosquitos capable of flight today. To achieve that goal they must raise $7.8 million in total. Only then will they fully realize their motto: “To fly; To educate; To remember.”

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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10 Fascinating Facts About Airplane Bathrooms
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iStock

Even if you only fly first class, there’s no getting around the fact that moving your bowels at 36,000 feet is a bit of an ordeal. Airplane lavatories are cramped, turbulence can unseat you, and the line of people waiting just outside the flimsy door can make it difficult to relax.

Despite these drawbacks, airplane lavatories used to be much, much worse. Take a look at 10 facts we’ve uncovered about the past, present, and future of turds on the tarmac.

1. PASSENGERS USED TO CRAP IN BOXES.

 An open cardboard box sits empty
iStock

No matter how boorish your seatmate might be or how loud the wail of the child behind you, be thankful you weren’t one of the earliest pilots or passengers during the aviation explosion of the 1930s and 1940s. Without tanks or separate bathroom compartments, anyone in flight would have make do with pooping in buckets or boxes that would sometimes overflow due to turbulence, splattering poop on the interior; some pilots peed into their shoes or through a hole in the cockpit floor. The first removable bowls were seen at the end of the 1930s, with crew members having to come and empty them out after landing. Removable tanks followed in the 1940s. 

2. THE BRITISH POOPED RIGHT INTO THE SKY.

In 1937, a “flying boat” dubbed the Supermarine Stranraer was put into service by Britain’s Royal Air Force. It didn’t take long for the craft to earn a nickname, the “whistling sh-t House,” owing to one curious design choice: The toilet onboard had no tank or reservoir and opened up to the sky below. If the lid remained open, the passing air would prompt the plane to make a whistling noise.

3. CHARLES LINDBERGH PEED ON FRANCE.

A photo of aviator Charles Lindbergh
Central Press/Getty Images

Famous aviator Charles Lindbergh completed his transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927 and met with King George V shortly after touching down. The 33-hour flight led him to ask Lindbergh how he had managed his bodily demands during that time; Lindbergh replied that he had peed into an aluminum container and then dropped it while flying over France.

4. FALLING FROZEN POOP WAS A BIG PROBLEM IN THE ‘80S.

As aviation become more sophisticated, toilets went from merely trying to contain poop to actively trying to fight germs with Anotec, the brand name for the “blue liquid” found in freestanding bowls. Unfortunately, the tanks housing the liquid and the waste were sometimes prone to leakage in the air, prompting giant biohazards to freeze on the hull of planes and then break away as the aircraft began its descent. The apocalyptic poop balls reportedly smashed cars and roofs before Boeing and other manufacturers adopted the vacuum system still in use today.

5. THERE'S BEEN ONE CASE OF CATASTROPHIC GENITAL INJURY.

A look at the interior of a cramped airplane bathroom
iStock

The current pneumatic vacuum system toilets use pressure to siphon waste from the bowl without using much liquid, which keeps the plane from having to carry the additional weight of waste water in the sky. The noise of the violent suction can be unsettling, but it’s rare you’d actually be in any danger. Rare, but not impossible.

An article in the Journal of Travel Medicine in July 2006 [PDF] reported one case of misadventure due to an airplane toilet. A 37-year-old woman flushed while still seated and created a seal, trapping her on the commode. After being freed by flight attendants, she was examined by doctors and was found to have a labial laceration that resulted in “substantial” blood loss. She was treated and recovered fully.

6. THERE’S A TRICK TO AVOID STINKING UP THE PLANE.

No one wants to be the person who exits a lavatory having polluted the pressurized cabin with a foul odor. According to an ex-flight attendant named Erika Roth, asking an employee for a bag of coffee grounds and then hanging them in the bathroom can help absorb any odors produced by your activities.

7. AIRBUS TOILETS CAN REACH POOP SPEEDS OF 130 MPH.

Dubbed the “Formula 1” of airplane toilets, certain Airbus models circa 2007 could produce unbelievable suctioning power. In a demonstration for a journalist (above), their A380 model could move sewage at speeds of 130 miles per hour. The speeds are necessary when bathroom waste needs to travel the length of the passenger cabin to the sewage tanks in the back.

8. THEY’RE GETTING SMALLER.

Already short on space, airplane lavatories might become even more cramped in the future. A 2017 report by Condé Nast Traveler indicated that as older planes are taken out of service, newer-model passenger planes are coming in with modified bathrooms that are up to two inches smaller in width and depth. Industry observers believe the shrinking bathrooms could pose problems for people with disabilities, pregnant women, and those who need to accompany their child into the bathroom.

9. BOEING MIGHT HAVE PERFECTED THE AIRPLANE POOP EXPERIENCE.

A glimpse at Boeing's new UV-equipped sanitized bathroom
Boeing

In 2016, the aeronautics company announced a possible solution to the germ-infested poop closets found on planes. Their self-cleaning lavatory uses ultraviolet light to kill 99.9 percent of all surface bacteria. The light would be activated between occupancies to sanitize the space for travelers. Boeing also envisions this lavatory of the future to be touchless, with a self-activating seat and sink.

10. THERE’S A REASON THEY STILL HAVE ASHTRAYS.

Ever wonder why airplane bathrooms have ashtrays built into the wall or door even though smoking is banned on virtually all flights? Because federal regulations still require them. The thinking is that someone sneaking a smoke will still need a place to put it out, and the risk of fire is reduced if they have a proper receptacle.

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