Airplane pilots is a science

16.09.2014 13:01

Glare attacks on pilots - damage to laser pointers difficult to prove

Anna Julia Voormann Press office
German Ophthalmological Society

Berlin - The number of glare attacks with laser pointers on aircraft pilots has been increasing worldwide for years. In 90 percent of cases, pointers in the green wavelength range are used whose power is below the five milliwatt limit. The detection of organic injuries in the eye is difficult with these low energy levels, explains the German Ophthalmological Society (DOG) in the run-up to its 112th congress. The situation is different in the case of high-energy lasers that are used as weapons of war. At a preliminary press conference on September 18 in Berlin, DOG experts will explain what damage can be caused to and in the eye by laser light.

In the USA alone there were almost 4,000 glare attacks on aircraft pilots last year, and experts estimate that at least 3,000 such incidents have occurred in Europe since 2004. "Commercial laser pointers with a strength of up to five milliwatts can in principle also reach Airbuses at a height of 15,000 meters," reports Dr. med. Frank Jakobs, ophthalmologist at the Air Force Center for Aerospace Medicine in Fürstenfeldbruck. "Most attacks take place during take-off and landing maneuvers or with helicopters that do not move as quickly," says Jakobs, who advises NATO on the subject of glare attacks. "Attacks on Eurofighters are rather rare, they are simply too fast for that."

Whether the attacks cause organic damage to the eye depends primarily on the strength of the laser. "In principle, laser damage, such as that caused by accidents with experimental lasers, can be detected by examining the fundus or with other special examinations," explains Professor Dr. med. Johann Roider, President of the DOG. In the case of glare attacks with standard laser pointers, this is more difficult. “In most cases, no organic damage can be detected here - neither with optical coherence tomography nor with other special examinations,” explains laser expert Roider. "According to previous experience, it remains with the pure glare", also confirms flight doctor Jakobs. The proof of laser damage can only be done through repeated examinations within the first few days, according to Roider.

Despite the alleged physical harmlessness, laser pointer attacks pose a major threat. "The pilots can temporarily lose their eyesight or see afterimages," says DOG President Roider. "Pilots describe the attacks as extremely unpleasant, especially since they can lead to errors with devastating consequences in critical flight phases such as take-off or landing," adds Jakobs. So far, there has not yet been an aircraft accident that was the result of a glare attack. “But aborted landing approaches, which is dangerous enough,” reports the flight doctor. The cockpit pilots' association is therefore calling for a clear sentence for laser attacks, which can currently be prosecuted as "dangerous interference in air traffic" with imprisonment between six months and ten years.

Beyond the commercially available laser pointers, there are devices with energy levels of up to a thousand watts, which operate in both the visible and invisible wavelength range. "High-energy, invisible lasers can cause bleeding at the fundus, making the pilot blind and unable to control," explains Roider. Lasers with beams of light over a meter in diameter have already been used off the coast of Somalia to temporarily blind pirates and thus incapacitate them - laser weapons, the primary aim of which is to cause permanent blindness, have been banned under the Geneva Convention since 1995 . In addition, there are weapons of war that operate in the high mega-watt range and have a considerable potential for destruction. “They can repel meteorites or missiles, cut through tanks and steel,” Jakobs said.

DOG: Research - Teaching - Health Care
The DOG is the medical-scientific specialist society for ophthalmology in Germany. It unites more than 6,500 doctors and scientists who research, teach and treat ophthalmological medicine under one roof. The main concern of the DOG is to promote research in ophthalmology: It supports scientific projects and studies, organizes congresses and publishes scientific journals. In addition, the DOG supports the next generation of scientists in ophthalmology, for example by awarding scholarships primarily to young researchers. Founded in Heidelberg in 1857, the DOG is the oldest medical-scientific specialist society in the world.


Advance press conference as part of the 112th DOG Congress
Date: Thursday, 18. September 2014, 11 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Location: Conference center in the house of the Federal Press Conference, room 4, Schiffbauerdamm 40 / corner Reinhardstraße 55, 10117 Berlin

Press conference as part of the 112th DOG Congress
Date: Thursday, September 25, 2014, 1:15 p.m. to 2:15 p.m.
Location: Congress Center Leipzig CCL, room 11, level +2, Leipziger Messe GmbH, Messe-Allee 1, 04356 Leipzig

Symposium "Laser Coagulation - Today"
Date: Friday, September 26, 2014, 8 a.m. to 9.30 a.m.
Location: Congress Center Leipzig CCL, multipurpose area 3/4, Leipziger Messe GmbH, Messe-Allee 1, 04356 Leipzig

Symposium "Aerospace Ophthalmology"
Date: Saturday, September 27, 2014, 2.30 p.m. to 4.00 p.m.
Location: Congress Center Leipzig CCL, Multipurpose Area 1, Leipziger Messe GmbH, Messe-Allee 1, 04356 Leipzig

Poster “Transient scotoma after laser-induced retinal injury with a titanium sapphire 800 nm femtosecond laser
Date: Saturday, September 27, 2014, 1:20 p.m. to 2:20 p.m.
Location: Congress Center Leipzig CCL, Foyer Level 1, Leipziger Messe GmbH, Messe-Allee 1, 04356 Leipzig

Contact for journalists:
German Ophthalmological Society (DOG)
Press office
Kerstin Ullrich
P.O. Box 30 11 20
70451 Stuttgart
Phone: 0711 8931-641
Fax: 0711 8931-984
[email protected]

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Features of this press release:
Research / knowledge transfer