Saturday, January 08, 2005

Lasers and Airplanes: Man arrested in New Jersey

Over the past couple of weeks, I have written two posts on the FBI's ridiculous obsession with terrorists trying to cause airplanes to crash by shining a laser beam into the eyes of the pilots, blinding them, and rendering them incapable of flying their aircraft.

Earlier this week, a 38 year-old man named David Banach was arrested in New Jersey for shining a laser at a small Cessna Citation jet flying into Teaneck airport, and later for shining the same laser at a police helicopter. Here is a an excerpt from a CBS article about the incident:

Prosecutors are taking this case very seriously. They say even though 38-year-old David Banach, a married father of three works in fiber optics is not a terrorist and has no criminal record, he is charged with violating the Patriot Act and prosecutors say he tried to blame his seven-year-old daughter for pointing a laser beam at a passing plane. "No comment, " said David Banach, suspect. That’s all David Banach would say when asked why he allegedly pointed a laser at an airplane, nearly blinding the pilot. His lawyer says its all a misunderstanding.

“I can’t comment on his state of mind but he didn’t mean to hurt anybody or anything like that,” said Gina Longarzo his lawyer.

But that’s not how the U.S. Attorneys office sees it. And on Tuesday charged Banach with two felonies: interfering with a mass transportation vehicle and lying to federal investigators.

"We just cannot permit in today's society the idea that there is any type of harmless fooling around that you can do with air travel," said Christopher Christie, the U.S. Attorney.

Prosecutors say on Dec. 29th, Banach was in his back yard in Parsippany when he allegedly pointed a laser beam at the cockpit of a charter plane on its way to Teterboro airport, temporarily blinding the pilot and co-pilot.

"That beam is able to enter your eye and it causes burn damage essentially," says pilot John Scott Huff.

The criminal complaint against David Banach is a bit more specific in how he was caught: after the pilot of the Cessna Citation reported the incident to the FBI, they took him out in a police helicopter on January 4 to try to pinpoint the approximate location the beam had come from, only to find the police helicopter illuminated by a green laser (which the Cessna pilot identified as being similar to what he was illuminated with). The helicopter responded by illuminating the house the beam originated from with a searchlight, and agents on the ground moved in.

The news media in this case seem to be grossly exaggerating the effects the laser had on the airplane. Lasers are not magic - they are simply a beam of light where all the light rays move exactly in parallel with each other so that the beam moves in a straight line and is roughly the same width and brightness at its destination as at its source.

The laser used by David Banach was a type used for testing fiber-optic cable, which can do some mild damage to a person's eye if (and only if) it is shone directly into the pupil of the victim's eye at the same time as the victim is looking directly at the laser source. Considering that the laser beam is less than a millimeter wide, the airplane was flying at 3,000 feet, and the airplane was traveling at 250 knots at the time of the incident, the likelihood of Banach's laser hitting even one pilot's eye was extremely remote. However, a laser beam does shine a bright light into the cockpit, which would have distracted the pilots, and if the pilots did look at the projection of the beam in the cockpit it could have adversely affect their night-vision (similar to looking at any light source).

What I suspect happened here is Banach pointed his laser at the Cessna jet as a sort of inappropriate practical joke. The pilots, who have probably been reading the sensationalist news articles about lasers and terrorists, saw the beam in their cockpit and panicked a bit, losing their concentration. They looked at the projection of the beam, and when they looked back at the runway, they couldn't see it as well (since their night-vision was affected by looking at a light source), and knowing that a laser can blind a person (but only under special circumstances) put two and two together and told investigators that they were temporarily blinded by the laser. Like a psychosomatic illness, one only needs to think one is sick to feel some symptoms and have one's mind fill in the rest of the details.

What Banach did was stupid, irresponsible, and reckless. But, it is not terrorism, and was extremely unlikely to cause the aircraft to crash.

Lasers are not magic, and are all around us: CD and DVD players read discs with laser beams, supermarket checkout counters use lasers to read the UPC barcodes, teachers use laser pointers, fiber-optic cables use laser light, construction crews use lasers for leveling, etc. Lasers are around us everyday, and yet you do not hear about too many cases of injuries from laser beams. The reason is simple: to injure your eye with a laser requires you to shine it directly into your pupil while looking straight at it, and the likelihood of someone doing this is minimal, even at close range.

Many people tend to be nervous and suspicious of technologies they do not understand, and since few people really understand how lasers work, they can easily become a source of unwarranted concern. The media and FBI are not helping matters here, and are panicking pilots and the general public with exaggerations about the capabilities of laser technology. This serves only to distract people from other, more realistic vulnerabilities in the civil aviation system.