CLOSE
Original image
Federal Aviation Administration

What Pilots See When You Shine a Laser Pointer at Aircraft

Original image
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.

arrow
History
When Chuck Yeager Tweeted Details About His Historic, Sound Barrier-Breaking Flight

Seventy years ago today—on October 14, 1947—Charles Elwood Yeager became the first person to travel faster than the speed of sound. The Air Force pilot broke the sound barrier in an experimental X-1 rocket plane (nicknamed “Glamorous Glennis”) over a California dry lake at an altitude of 25,000 feet.

In 2015, the nonagenarian posted a few details on Twitter surrounding the anniversary of the achievement, giving amazing insight into the history-making flight.

For even more on the historic ride, check out the video below.

Original image
arrow
History
How the Wright Brothers' Plane Compares to the World's Largest Aircraft
Original image

The Wright brothers famously built the world’s first powered, heavier-than-air, controllable aircraft. But while the siblings revolutionized the field of aviation, their early plane looks tiny—and dare we say quaint-looking—when compared to the aerial giants that came after it.

In Tech Insider’s video below, you can see how the Wright brothers’ flyer stacks up against the scale of other aircrafts. You'll notice that size doesn't always guarantee a successful journey. The Hughes H-4 Hercules—the largest flying boat ever made—never made it past the prototype stage, performing only one brief flight in 1947. And the Hindenburg, which was 804 feet long and could fit 80 Olympic swimming pools, famously exploded on May 6, 1937.

Today’s longest commercial airliner is the Boeing 747-8, which measures 251 feet from nose to tail. While slightly shorter (238 feet), the Airbus A380 is certified to hold more people than any other plane in the air—a total of 850 passengers. That record won't last long, though: In a few years, the Stratolaunch carrier—the widest aircraft ever built—will dwarf its contemporaries when it takes to the skies in 2019. Built to launch rockets into orbit, its wingspan is about the size of a football field, even bigger than that of the Hughes H-4 Hercules.

Still, what the Wright brothers’ plane lacked in size, it made up for in ingenuity. Without it, these other giants may never have existed.

[h/t: Tech Insider]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios