Monday, January 03, 2005

Lasers and Airplanes: the FBI finally comes to its senses

A few days ago, I put up a post talking about the fact that it is nearly impossible for someone to use a laser to blind pilots and bring down an airplane. Today, the FBI came out with a statement that they do not believe that the recent activity since Christmas is the result of terrorism. To quote CNN:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The FBI investigation into recent incidents involving laser beams aimed at aircraft has found no link to terrorism, the Department of Homeland Security's transportation security chief said Monday.
"There's not any evidence that these lasers are being used by terrorists," said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary of border and transportation security. "The FBI certainly continues to investigate and look at these fact scenarios. It's also a safety issue that the Department of Transportation would certainly want to look at."
The FBI is investigating eight incidents since Christmas involving lasers -- or lights believed to be lasers -- directed at various aircraft across the nation, including incidents in the District of Columbia, Ohio, Colorado and New Jersey. All of the pilots were able to land without incident.

Obviously they reached the same conclusion that I did a few days ago: that some kids living near the airport were trying out laser toys they got for Christmas.

I still have no idea why these government agencies are taking this laser-terrorist idea seriously at all.

Let's talk a bit more about how impossible this whole idea is. Until a few years ago, I was involved the sport of competitive rifle shooting. At a range of 50 meters, someone who is very skilled (the sort of person who would qualify for the US Olympic team) can consistently hit a bullseye about the size of the head of a pencil (the size of the iris of a person's eye) - when the shooter is lying in the prone position, using a precision target rifle and sight, and using other specialized equipment (sling, shooting jacket, etc.).

Now, let's pretend you are trying to blind the pilot of an oncoming plane with a laser. We are talking about a target the same size (the iris of the pilot's eye), except a lot further away than 50 meters and moving towards us at 200 miles per hour. You cannot see the target clearly (since it is behind the cockpit glass), and the target is also moving as the pilot's head is moving. You are probably not using the same type of precision equipment an Olympic shooter would use, you are probably not in the prone position (the most stable position) and are probably having to shoot from a kneeling or standing position (which are much less stable than prone). The people who won the gold medals for rifle shooting in the 2004 Olympics could not pull off this feat even once. But you, the terrorist are Superman, and will pull this amazing feat off not once, but four times in a row (one for each of the pilot's eyes, and once for each of the copilot's eyes) in just a few seconds to make the plane crash on its approach.

Perhaps the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI should start stocking kryptonite so they can deal with these "superman" terrorists who will be bringing airplanes down with lasers. Or, better yet, they should stop believing every hair-brained theory that someone cooks up as a possibility for bringing down an airplane.