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Pilot returns to London after laser beam shone at US-bound plane

A Virgin Atlantic flight returned to London Heathrow shortly after take-off on Sunday when a laser beam was shone into the cockpit. Picture by Justin Kernoghan
John Monaghan

A FLIGHT bound for the US was forced to turn back to London Heathrow after a laser beam was shone into the cockpit.

The Virgin Atlantic flight left London shortly after 8pm on Sunday and was en route to New York when the laser was shone at the pilots.

A decision was made to return to London after the crew said one of the pilots had "a medical issue."

The 252 passengers were put up in hotels overnight and are set to continue their journey today.

In a recording from the cockpit which was published online, a crew member is heard telling Irish air traffic control that the incident took place six to seven miles west of Heathrow.

Virgin Atlantic said the flight returned to the west London airport as a "precautionary measure" after the co-pilot reported feeling unwell.

The airline apologised to passengers for any inconvenience caused, and said it was working with the authorities to identify the source of the laser.

Passenger Beth McHutchinson told the BBC: "Probably about an hour into the flight we had a tannoy, and it said the second pilot had been shot in the eye with a laser during take-off, and we were going back to Heathrow."

Last month, The Irish News reported that hundreds of pilots flying over the north have been put at risk by people shining laser pens at their aircraft.

There have been 351 registered incidents in Northern Ireland since 2010.

It is a criminal offence to shine a laser at an aircraft in any circumstances, regardless of whether it is intentional or accidental.

The British Airline Pilots Association said last year that it was concerned at the threat from the beams, which can distract or startle pilots at critical points during a flight.

In one incident last year, a British Airways pilot suffered a burnt retina after a laser was shone into the cockpit of a plane approaching London Heathrow.

Pilots who experience such incidents are required to undergo an eye test before flying again.

The figures have fallen since 2010, when a separate criminal offence was introduced for anyone shining a laser pen at an aircraft.

Two pieces of legislation deal with laser pens, the most serious offence being a charge of recklessly endangering an aircraft, which can carry a three-year custodial sentence.

The lesser charge of 'shining a light at an aircraft in flight so as to dazzle the pilot', introduced in 2010 and applicable regardless of intent, carries a maximum £2,000 fine.

In 2012, Belfast man Michael Jackson (26) received a six-month suspended jail sentence and had to pay £30 to cover the cost of an eye test for the pilot after admitting shining a green laser at a police helicopter in August 2010.

Across the UK, there were 7,542 incidents of laser pens being shone at aircraft between 2010 and 2015.

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