Airline “Scare in the Air:” Laser Mythology


Airline “Scare in the Air:” Laser Mythology

Took a laser in the side of my face last night as I was hand-flying a Boeing 737-800 with 170 people on board through about 500 feet on approach. My reaction?

Shrug. No big deal.

But that’s not the way that story would appear on social media, which brings up an important question: when did Americans become so trembly-fearful of everything? Typical headlines include “horror, terror, scare” for any incident, large or small, when it comes to air travel. After turbulence, mechanical problems, or any anomaly, social media burns like a Presto Log as passengers leap to fulfill the “scare” pronouncement with their own hero story, selfie, and video.


But it’s really much ado about nothing–especially lasers. That’s why none of the other 168 people on board last night even knew about the laser hit, denying them the opportunity to gather “likes” and “follows” with a firsthand omigod we were hit by a laser on approach “scare” story. Unaware, they simply deplaned and went home. But here’s the “laser non-scare” reality.

First, we fly near much brighter flashes, sometimes right in our face, as we pass thunderheads at night. That’s just routine. A laser, by contrast, has a fraction of the candle power and unless it’s being pointed at us head on, it’s always a sidelong, oblique flash.

Back Camera

The only way possible to get the light square into my eyes would be to somehow determine my exact landing aimpoint on the runway (not possible) and stand precisely there, aiming the light perfectly into my face, but that’s even less likely: from the front, we’re a tiny target that’s changing position constantly. And the laser “aimer” would have to be standing on the exact spot where seventy tons of metal was about to plop down doing about a hundred and fifty miles per hour. That’s a Wile E. Coyote, Darwin-esque scenario and NOT a “scare in the air.”

The side shot does nothing except maybe distract the pilot for a second, but no more so than the vista out my side window when I rolled us into a left bank turning onto final approach over the Texas Rangers ballpark which was lit up like a nuclear Christmas tree 3,000 feet below. Took a glance–go Rangers!–at that as I we sliced by at 220 knots in the turn, then back to business.

The laser flash? Of course I didn’t turn to look at it and unless you do–and why would anyone besides Wile E. Coyote do that–it’s simply a non-event. Typically, the illumination lasts a second or two at most because urban legend notwithstanding, it not easy to hit a two foot square window moving at between 150 and 200 miles per hour from a half mile below.

Sorry: no scare in the air. Thanks for flying with us. But like the recent hype about “drone danger,” social media will have to look elsewhere for the next “there I was” panic scenario. Laser illumination of the cockpit in flight not worth mentioning.

8 Responses to “Airline “Scare in the Air:” Laser Mythology”

  1. As much as I agree with your observation on lasers, I’m a little surprised to see it in print. Harmful or not, such illuminations remain a federal offense and should not happen. I also know that you and your flying partner are well prepared to cope, yet who needs one more distraction during a Critical Phase? The truly disturbing part is the mentality of the idiot with the laser. What is his/her motivation? Does the fool really wish to kill one-hundred seventy souls? Perhaps I’m a pea-brain, but I cannot wrap my little head around their motivation. And yes, I’m encouraged to know that you folks can safely cope. Best wishes, -Cg.

    • I agree that laser illuminations shouldn’t happen. My focus here is the hysteria in the news media over a non-issue.

      • OK.

      • 777 Hauler Says:

        I think it’s highly irresponsible to put all of this down to media hysteria, especially for someone in your position. There’s a reason that laser attacks carry an automatic custodial sentence in many countries. You might have been fine on base leg but it’ll be a different story at the end of a 12 hour duty, at night, in heavy rain just prior to starting the flare.

        I trust you reported your incident to the police, ATC and your airline as is your legal responsibility as commander.

      • It’s hard for you to tolerate an opinion different from your own, isn’t it? I trust you’ll put yours into your own blog. Then I can disagree with it and tell you how to do your job.

        And be sure to cite the “commander’s legal responsibility to call the police” reference when you do.

    • ” mentality of the idiot with the laser”

      It’s kids, that’s what kids do. I think Chris is being sensible by not exaggerating the matter.

  2. The laser crowd is likely a subpart of the demographic that plays “Phantom Controller”. Closely allied to the demographic that sends toy quadcopters into the flight paths of 737s (doing 220 KIAS at 3500 AGL was it on initial approach) . Products of close relatives marrying and/or indiscriminate ingestion of alcohol or controlled substances during their gestation. And very similar to the ones on social media who describe the near death experience of the dreaded center seat, crying baby, and the scary turbulence that delayed meal service 15 minutes. Or the “meal” that was scary. Oh the humanity…….

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