Russia keeps eyes closed on laser protection for pilots

Anti-glare eyewear and better legislation could help neutralize attacks on pilots with lasers. Russia, however, is still dragging its feet on a solution, despite nationwide incidents.

Europe and the US encountered the first laser attacks on aviators more than 20 years ago. Methods of tackling the problem are well-developed and work well there. Russia ran into the problem just recently. Only five cases of laser attacks were registered in the country in 2010, but in 2011 the number jumped to more than 30, with the latest incident taking place on Tuesday in Moscow’s Vnukovo International Airport.

Even though a laser projects a small millimeter-sized dot close up, at long ranges the beam can be many centimeters or even meters in diameter. A laser light pointed at a pilot’s eyes results in his inability to see past the light. At higher power levels, pilots can be distracted or temporarily flash-blinded, they may also suffer temporary renal problems such as eye irritation and afterimages (optical illusions continuing to appear in one’s vision after the exposure to the original image has ceased).

Specially developed laser safety glasses can almost completely protect pilots from illumination. In the West, there are at least two companies that produce such glasses.

Until recently, there was no information about Russian producers, but in early August, the Russian Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid reported that scientists from the southern city of Rostov-on-Don had developed eyeglasses with a very narrow-banded filter that it claims eliminate 99 percent of laser light. Because of the narrow light band aspect, they do not adversely degrade color recognition.

Russia’s air transport watchdog, Rosaviatsia, is currently in talks with a domestic producer to provide pilots with such lenses, said Andrei Pryanishnikov, an advisor to the company’s director general, adding that talks have so far been going in circles.

“We also developed a bill to send to parliament that would thwart ill-wishers from aiming pen lasers at pilots. We hope it will be considered and adopted soon,” Pryanishnikov continued. The amendments stipulate criminal liability for those who aim laser pens at aircraft. “But I do not know exactly when this proposal will be considered.”

“Laser hooligans can be divided into three categories,” said psychiatrist Mikhail Vinogradov, head of Moscow’s Center for Legal and Psychological Aid in Extreme Situations . “Young jokers comprise the first category – they just do not realize the scale of disaster they could trigger,” he said.

“Nut-jobs, who fully sense the danger of their actions, want to harm other people’s lives, but act alone, compose the second category,” Vinogradov went on. “Extremists, who try to manipulate society and the government through terrorism, comprise the last category.”

So far, the overwhelming majority of Russian hooligans remain unpunished. One suspect was caught in Moscow this June, and another in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya a month later. The 17 year old suspect was told he would “face very strict measures” if a similar incident occurs again, the Chechen Interior Ministry said on its website.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov ordered a ban on sales of laser pointers in the republic after the incident.

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