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Laser strike forces Virgin Atlantic passenger jet back to airport

The actions of half-wits pointing lasers toward airplane cockpits are a growing concern for aviation authorities around the world. The latest such incident, which took place in the UK Sunday night, was so serious it forced a departing commercial airliner to turn back.

The plane, a Virgin Atlantic aircraft bound for New York’s JFK airport with 252 passengers on board, was reportedly struck by a laser shortly after leaving Heathrow airport, dazzling both pilots. A short time later, one of them complained of feeling unwell, forcing the flight to return to London.

“Following this incident, the first officer reported feeling unwell,” Virgin Atlantic said in a statement Sunday evening. “The decision was taken by both pilots to return to Heathrow rather than continue the transatlantic crossing.”

Such incidents are usually (though not always) the work of idiotic individuals messing around with powerful hand-held laser pointers. As well as filling a cockpit with a disorienting bright light, the beam from the device can also permanently damage the eyesight of anyone in its direct path, hardly a reassuring thought for passengers who like the idea of their pilot being able to see where they’re going when at the controls.

In the UK, a law introduced five years ago made it an offense to “shine a light at an aircraft in flight so as to dazzle the pilot.” But the crime continues to be a serious problem, with a total of 414 laser incidents reported to the UK’s aviation authority between January and June last year.

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It’s a worrying issue in the U.S., too. Ian Gregor of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says that incidents of laser targeting “just exploded” in 2015, Aviation Week reported.

Data reveals 6,624 reported incidents across the country up until the end of November last year, while the previous high for a single year was just over 3,900.

“We are extremely concerned about the number of laser reports we’re seeing because aiming a laser at an aircraft cockpit can pose a significant hazard to a pilot, especially during the critical phases of flight like taking off and approaching to land,” Gregor said.

The Transportation Security Administration notes on its website that a beam from a laser pointer – even from up to a mile away – is powerful enough to light up a cockpit “like a camera flash going off in a pitch black car at night.”

And the authorities aren’t messing about when it comes to handing down punishments to perpetrators, with one guy, for example, put away for 14 years for pointing a laser at a helicopter in an incident in California.