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Federal Aviation Administration
Federal Aviation Administration

What Pilots See When You Shine a Laser Pointer at Aircraft

Federal Aviation Administration
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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Live Smarter
This Travel Site Factors in Baggage Fees to Show You the True Cost of Your Flight
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If you're looking to find the best deal on airfare, there are more tools out there to help you than ever before. Travel sites allow users to compare ticket prices based on airlines and the dates of their trip, but the numbers they show don't always paint the full picture. Additional fees for baggage can make a flight that seemed like a steal at booking suddenly a lot less convenient. Fortunately for frugal flyers, KAYAK has found a way to work this factor into their equations, Travel + Leisure reports.

To use the fare search engine's new baggage fee feature, start by entering the information for your flight like you normally would. Flying from New York to Chicago and back the first week of May? KAYAK recommends taking Spirit Airlines if you're looking to pay as little as possible.

But let's say you plan on checking two bags on your flight—different airlines charge different baggage fees, so Spirit may no longer be the cheapest option. If that's the case, KAYAK includes a Fee Assistant bar right above the search results. After entering the number of carry-on and checked bags you'll be traveling with, the results will automatically update to show the true cost of your fare. Ticket prices for New York to Chicago rise across the board with the addition of two checked bags, and Delta now becomes the best deal if you're looking to book through one airline.

The new baggage fee assistant is one way for travelers to make savvier purchases when booking online. But even with the added fees included, you'll need to do some extra research to determine the true value you get from each ticket price that pops up. Wi-Fi, legroom, and in-flight meal quality are all factors that could make a slightly more expensive airline worth it once you board.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Forensic Analysis Suggests Bones Discovered on a Pacific Island May Belong to Amelia Earhart
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In 1937, the most famous female pilot of the day became the center of one of the most enduring aviation mysteries of all time. Amelia Earhart, best known for being the first woman to complete a solo flight across the Atlantic, vanished while attempting to circumnavigate the globe with her navigator Fred Noonan. Eighty years later, potential clues regarding her fate are still being considered. The latest is a forensic analysis that has one scientist claiming he's identified the bones of Amelia Earhart, The Washington Post reports.

The 13 bones were recovered from the island of Nikumaroro in the South Pacific in 1940. A British expedition surveying the island for settlement came across the remains, along with a bottle of an herbal liqueur, a box designed to hold a Brandis Navy surveying sextant (a navigation instrument), and a woman's shoe. All pieces are items that would have plausibly been on board if Earhart had crashed her Lockheed plane in the area.

A popular theory about Earhart's disappearance around that time was that she had died a castaway on a remote Pacific island similar to that one. Experts suspected that the bones may have belonged to the lost pilot, but the researcher who conducted an analysis in 1941 concluded they belonged to a man.

Forensic osteology, the study of bones, was in its infancy at the time of the analysis. With this in mind, University of Tennessee anthropologist Richard L. Jantz recently revisited the potential evidence that had been ignored by Earhart researchers for decades, a process he describes in a new study published in the journal Forensic Anthropology.

He used more sophisticated methods than were available in 1941: A computer program he helped design called Fordisc allowed him to estimate the sex, ancestry, and stature of the specimen from bone measurements. He then compared this data to the estimated size of Amelia Earhart's skeleton based on what we know about her height, weight, and overall proportions. From this research, he found that the Nikumaroro bones are more similar to Earhart's physique than 99 percent of the individuals he looked at in a reference sample.

The castaway theory is just one of many explanations experts have given for Amelia Earhart's disappearance. Other possibilities suggest that she crashed and died at sea, that she crashed in Papua New Guinea, or that she was captured by Japanese forces and died a prisoner. Since her disappearance, many of these theories have been validated by new evidence and then discredited when that evidence turned out to be either fabricated or blown out of proportion. But if the claims of this new study hold up to scrutiny, they could change the way the story is told going forward.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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