Ask the pilot

The laser-wielding terrorists are coming! Not since the Dread Syrian Wedding Musicians went to the bathroom has such idiotic hysteria gripped America.


Patrick Smith
January 5, 2005 1:30AM (UTC)

Two weeks ago, in what was intended to be a preemptive snuff of a burgeoning spark of hysteria, I discussed the implausibility of terrorists using laser beams to down a commercial airliner. Unfortunately, lasers are back in the news again, now getting the full attention of the major press and television networks.

In the past week, no fewer than eight aircraft are said to have been targeted. These include a Cessna executive jet preparing to land at Teterboro, N.J.; a SkyWest commuter plane approaching Medford, Ore.; and a jetliner at 8,500 feet above Cleveland. On New Year's Eve, a beam was aimed at a police helicopter over Trenton, N.J.

Advertisement:

Back in mid-December, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security passed along a memo stating that terrorists had explored the viability of deploying high-intensity lasers as weapons. The alert came after several earlier incidents of rogue beams penetrating flight deck windows. In the most serious case, last September, the first officer of a Delta Air Lines jet suffered a burned retina after being struck in the face during approach into Salt Lake City.

While these events are perplexing, and at least potentially dangerous, a presumed link to terrorist activity is, even if impossible to discount, still premature and wrongheaded. Alas that's a bit like whispering into a hurricane here in 2005 America, where the T-word has been spliced into the very DNA of our collective societal psyche. Thanks to one day's events more than three years ago, we've come to exist in a full-on reversion mode in which every anomaly that's at once potentially harmful and not instantly solvable takes automatic cover beneath the dark cloak of "terrorism" -- a paranoid pathology that shows no sign of relenting. We've concocted an upside-down religion, choosing to invest our faith in the cunning of an invisible adversary while disparaging our own voices of reason and good sense. At heart it's an old story, fear of the unknown, taken to new and self-destructive heights in a politically charged climate.

This time it's lasers, ushering us to the verge of a fear-storm of, dare I say it, Annie Jacobsenian proportions. My reference is to the writer whose July 2004 account of sharing a flight to Los Angeles with a clutch of hyperactive Syrian musicians inspired a summer-long crusade by reactionary pundits and talk show hosts. The musicians, so went the spin, were in fact a team of terrorists engaged in a covert rehearsal -- a so-called "dry run" -- for a September 11th sequel.

Jacobsen, whose byline now credits her as an authority on terrorism and air safety, hasn't yet tackled the laser story and the radio rage machine hasn't got its script down. But give them a little time; fear is a tricky thing to cultivate, and there are still some dots to connect. That plane over Cleveland was hit by a ray emanating from the 90 percent black suburb of Warrensville Heights. Perhaps there's a Pakistani cabdriver or family of Syrians living in town.

Authorities plainly admit there is no credible evidence of a specific terrorist plot to acquire or deploy lasers, a disclaimer carried by most published news articles covering the latest incidents. The DHS/FBI memo from December was one of 160 bulletins released during the past two years, and cited nothing more specific than terrorists "exploring" laser attacks. Just as they've explored the use of nuclear weapons, biological weapons, guns, knives, car bombs, plastic explosives and so forth. "We have no specific, credible information," said DHS spokeswoman Valerie Smith, in a report carried by the Associated Press, "suggesting that such plans are underway in the United States."

Sadly many Americans haven't much appetite for healthy or informed skepticism. "It's not some kid," voices Paul Rancatore, speaking in a report disseminated around the country this week by UPI. Rancatore is deputy chairman of the security committee at the Allied Pilots Association, the union representing crews at American Airlines. "It's too organized," he warns.

Advertisement:

Sounds like our dry-run perps all over again. Tired of getting dirty looks at 30,000 feet, apparently, they've opted for ground-based maneuvers. The more you read, the more you stumble across the identical words and concepts used to seed last summer's fear-mongering: Things are "organized" and "patterned." The terrorist-laser supposition relies on precisely the same hooks -- it's spooky, pandering to overanxious imaginations, and maddeningly impossible to completely disprove.

"It sounds like an organized effort to cause airline accidents," says Loren Thompson, professor of military technology at Georgetown University, quoted in the same UPI story as Rancatore. "What we're talking about is a fairly powerful [laser]. That's not the sort of thing you pick up at a military surplus store."

Actually, law enforcement officials maintain that the types of devices used are readily for sale, frequently employed in concerts, light shows, civilian construction work and numerous industries. Federal guidelines restrict the use of lasers to below certain altitudes, but such rules aren't easily enforced, particularly in areas with airports -- and low-flying aircraft -- nearby.

My own encounter with a high-intensity ray occurred in the early 1990s during an approach into Newark, N.J. Skirting the lower edge of Manhattan along the Hudson River, a wayward (perhaps intentionally so) beam from a light show atop the World Trade Center caught and tracked our turboprop briefly, filling the cockpit with a fiery incandescence. Police believe the beams that hit the Cessna jet on approach to Teterboro came from a shopping mall.

Advertisement:

According to the National Transportation Safety Board and the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, there is a docket of hundreds of laser events over the years, victimizing both civilian and military aircraft. Records at the NTSB cite more than 50 laser irradiations taking place around Las Vegas alone in a two-year span between 1993 and 1995. Ten years later a similar spate -- albeit one less purely accidental, most likely the work of copycat pranksters -- becomes a small-scale national security crisis.

And if there's one thing each of those hundreds of events has in common, it's a zero fatality rate. Crews have been left disoriented and in some cases injured, but not once did an airplane crash. "In certain circumstances," reads the December DHS/FBI alert, "if laser weapons adversely affect the eyesight of both pilot and copilot during a noninstrument approach, there is risk of airliner crash." Technically that's accurate, though the "noninstrument approach" reference is only partly relevant. Conspicuous in almost all analyses of this weird brouhaha is a presumption that approach and landing are the ideal time for such an attack, when in fact takeoff would be the more opportune moment. But to truly grasp the improbability of a laser inducing a crash, one needs to understand those "certain circumstances."

Hitting two pilots squarely in the face through the refractive, wraparound windshield of a cockpit would be extremely difficult and entail a substantial amount of luck, and a temporarily or partially blinded crew would still have the means to stabilize a climbing or descending airplane. Surviving even a worst-case attack would be challenging, but not impossible.

Advertisement:

To accept the proposition that terrorists are behind these events is to assume that gangs of al-Qaida operatives are hunkered down in neighborhoods throughout America, openly risking capture in their attempts to test out obvious, traceable devices that even when used accurately are exceptionally unlikely to bring forth an accident. I submit that terrorists do not undertake operations with such high probabilities of exposure and failure. They have little to gain and everything to lose. With respect to bang for the buck, why waste time with lasers when you could hide in a patch of trees with an assault rifle and inflict greater damage?

Admittedly, however, what you wouldn't inflict is the twisted flavors of angst and paranoia that arise from the notion of terrorists migrating to less orthodox, ever more insidious methods of attack. Bombs and skyjackings are historically the weapons of choice, but they don't carry the sci-fi cachet of laser beams, which are in fact less dangerous, yet perceived to be more threatening. One school of thought proposes that terrorists have no desire to knock off a plane with lasers, only to scare us into thinking they do.

That's giving them too much credit, frankly, and we're plenty capable of keeping ourselves good and scared. In the meantime, our reaction to terror tends to be a quantum leap ahead of reality: iris scanning, biometric coding, elaborate plans to fly planes out of harm's way by remote control. All of which miss the point.

Advertisement:

Listen to Michael, an Airbus A320 pilot for a major U.S. airline (who asks to be kept otherwise anonymous): "Here we have cleaners and caterers able to board and roam through aircraft with no security screening whatsoever, yet people are worried about laser beams? Our priorities are insane."

"In the hierarchy of threats," adds a 747 first officer at a different carrier, "this one is pretty far down the list."

Just how upended is the hierarchy of priorities? At most American airports now, passengers and their hand luggage receive only token screening for explosives. Fliers must surrender their metal sharps, yet aren't specifically searched for the most likely and dangerous terrorist weapon of all. Meanwhile, a pilot cannot bring a fork onto his own jet, yet caterers, cleaners and ground staff can step aboard free of scrutiny. It wasn't laser beams or knitting needles that downed two Russian airliners last August. Or Pan Am 103 for that matter, 16 long-forgotten years ago. We're expected to believe saboteurs would spend thousands of dollars on sophisticated lasers when a few cheap ounces of Semtex would be immeasurably more effective?

That isn't to say we're living dangerously, and it's important to note that the past three years have been the safest in civil aviation history. Whether our good fortunes have come because of, or in spite of, our security mindset is arguable, but either way it underscores the astonishing safety of flight, even in the face of cheap, destructive technologies and legions of sworn enemies. But if we insist on being neurotic, and if we're that eager to dump billions of dollars into the maw of a terrorism-industrial complex, should it not be done as rationally as possible, with a sense of what is outright foolish?

Advertisement:

Where is the outrage? Where are Annie Jacobsen and the talk show rabble-rousers? Where are ABC, NBC and the proud nationhood of online bloggers? If a security issue doesn't include some creepy conspiratorial overtones, they don't seem interested in talking about it.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

MORE FROM Patrick SmithLIKE Patrick Smith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Air Travel Ask The Pilot Business

BROWSE SALON.COM
COMPLETELY AD FREE,
FOR THE NEXT HOUR

Read Now, Pay Later - no upfront
registration for 1-Hour Access

Click Here
7-Day Access and Monthly
Subscriptions also available
No tracking or personal data collection
beyond name and email address

•••


Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •