Laser Illumination of Helicopters: A Comparative Analysis with Fixed-Wing Aircraft for the Period 1980 – 2011
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Laser Illumination of Helicopters: A Comparative Analysis with Fixed-Wing Aircraft for the Period 1980 – 2011

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      INTRODUCTION. Laser illuminations of aircraft have resulted in pilots reporting distraction, disruption, disorientation, adverse visual effects, and operational problems that put at risk the safety of the aircraft and those onboard. FAA Order 7400.2 was revised in 1995 to establish lower laser exposure limits that protected flight crewmembers in specific zones of airspace around airports. However, helicopters (including police, air ambulance, military, and news media aircraft) that routinely operate at low altitudes outside these zones continue to be exposed to hazardous levels of laser radiation. This study examines the frequency of these events and adverse effects of laser illuminations involving helicopters compared with fixed-wing aircraft for a 32-year study period (from January 1, 1980 to December 31, 2011). METHODS. Reports of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft illuminated by high-intensity light have been collected from various sources and entered into a database maintained by the Vision Research Team at the FAA Civil Aerospace Medical Institute. The frequency of laser illumination events involving aircraft in the United States were stratified by altitude into 1,000-foot increments, categorized, and analyzed. Analysis included identifying adverse effects experienced by helicopter flight crewmembers, compared to those experienced by crewmembers of fixed-wing aircraft. RESULTS. The majority of helicopter laser exposures (70% or 751/1,072) were within the altitude limit established for the Laser Free Zone (LFZ ≤ 2,000 feet) versus only 18% (1,980/11,111) for fixed-wing aircraft. More than 86% (328/379) of all adverse effects reported by helicopter pilots were in this altitude range, compared to 29% (294/1,027) of all fixed-wing effects reported. CONCLUSION: Special protective measures may be needed for helicopters and other low-flying aircraft outside of designated airport hazard zones due to the higher percentage of adverse effects associated with these events and the increased risk inherent in low-altitude flight operations.
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