Northern Ireland news

Hundreds of pilots put at risk by laser pens in north

Hundreds of pilots flying over the north have been put at risk by people shining laser pens at their aircraft in the past five years. Picture by Justin Kernoghan
John Monaghan

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.

Around 70 cases are recorded in the north by the Civil Aviation Authority each year, although there have only been successful prosecutions in a small number of cases.

The number of incidents has dropped from a high of 76 in 2011 to 39 last year, according to a Freedom of Information request.

A total of 187 cases were recorded around Belfast International Airport, with a further 134 at the City Airport.

Just one was noted at the north's third airport at Derry in the five-year period.

There were also 30 cases elsewhere in Northern Ireland, including eight over Belfast.

Laser pens were reported in 10 other locations, including Omagh, Lisburn, Randalstown, Jordanstown and Newcastle.

In 2012 police issued warnings about laser pen activity in the Newtownabbey area.

The Civil Aviation Authority recorded three occasions of laser pen activity in north Belfast, including one incident in which a police helicopter was targeted.

In 2010 a military helicopter was also affected in the vicinity of the International Airport.

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.

In its response, the Civil Aviation Authority declined to state how many cases had resulted in a pilot being forced to take evasive action, saying the information was confidential and "should not be used to attribute blame or liability".

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