OE chief medical director enters laser pen attack debate

More education about effect on vision could help to reduce misuse, says Dr Steve Schallhorn, a former US Navy pilot

Steve Schallhorn
A former Top Gun pilot and leading eye doctor has urged greater awareness of the harmful effect that laser pen exposure can have on vision in order to help reduce attacks on aircraft which put lives at risk.

Dr Steve Schallhorn (pictured), who is chief medical director at Optical Express and a former US Navy pilot, spoke out amid mounting concern over potentially deadly laser attacks on aircraft.

It comes after the AOP produced video advice on the sight-threatening issues relating to the inappropriate use of lasers, which could affect drivers as well as pilots. 

The video was in response to the news that a Virgin Atlantic flight bound for New York was forced to turn back to Heathrow after a laser was shone at the cockpit.

Dr Schallhorn believes that better education could potentially stop some people from misusing powerful laser pens who may consider the act to be harmless fun. A pilot could lose their sight and career if hit by a laser.

“Laser attacks on pilots are exploding and could lead to a terrible tragedy if people continue to target aircraft,” said ophthalmologist Dr Schallhorn.

“The problem is that I’m not sure that people who misuse powerful laser pens actually understand the harmful effect they can have on vision."


He warned: “Sudden exposure to a laser beam during a critical phase of flight such as take-off or landing could seriously distract or disorient a pilot, causing a disruption in concentration or instrument scanning.

“And when viewed directly, powerful lasers can cause irreversible eye injury by burning the retina. The severity of injury depends on the amount of radiation that enters the eye and the length of exposure, but you only need to look at a laser beam for a few seconds to suffer devastating damage.

“Other possible side-effects include glare, which can cause reduced vision, and flash blindness, which obliterates a portion or all of a pilot’s visual field and cause the occurrence of after images.

“Flash blindness is similar to, but much more intense, than the reaction to a strobe flash from a camera or the reflection of bright sunlight from a window, windshield or mirror – and it lasts much longer.”

Dr Schallhorn, who trained fighter pilots while he was in the US Navy, concluded: “As these devices are increasingly powerful, I would urge anyone who thinks they have looked at a laser to consult an optometrist. Those who have suffered laser exposure should also refrain from rubbing their eye and possibly inducing further injury.”

According to the Civil Aviation Authority, almost 9000 laser incidents were reported across the UK between January 2009 and June 2015.

It is illegal to shine a light at an aircraft in flight so as to dazzle or distract the pilot. Last month a care officer from Hull was jailed for five months after shining a laser pen at a police helicopter because he was “bored” while waiting for a takeaway. In Scotland a lecturer is due to be sentenced this month after admitting to shining a laser pen at a police helicopter to see what the aircraft was doing.

Laser pens available for purchase by the public should have a maximum of one milliwatt power output, according to government guidelines, but some pointers available online are up to 50 and even 100 times more powerful.

Speaking about the AOP’s concerns, clinical and regulatory officer at the AOP, Henry Leonard, said: “We have been concerned for some time that inappropriate use of lasers can cause serious damage to the eyes, resulting in permanent loss of vision and also endanger passengers if, for example, a pilot or driver is the subject of a laser attack.”

Mr Leonard added: “As a wider issue, it’s important for parents to know that laser pointers – sometimes referred to as laser pens – are not toys. There are a range of different strengths of lasers freely on sale to the public, all of which pose a potential risk to the user and others. Whatever the strength, laser pens should never be aimed at people’s eyes, or at vehicles or aircraft.”

The AOP’s video on the use of lasers can be watched below.