The co-pilot of a British Airways aircraft preparing to land at Heathrow is reported to have been almost blinded after a “military-strength” laser was shone into his eye.
The pilot sustained a burnt retina and has not been able to fly since, the Times reported.
The British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa) said that the incident represented a significant escalation of the threat posed by laser-pen attacks that traditionally have been limited to weaker devices available on the high street.
It follows the publication of figures from the Civil Aviation Authority indicating that 1,440 laser incidents were reported near British airports last year, up by 3.5% in 12 months. This was the first annual increase in attacks in three years.
Aircraft coming in to land at Heathrow were more likely to be targeted than at any other airport - 168 last year - followed by Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds Bradford, Gatwick and Glasgow.
Balpa general secretary Jim McAuslan said that laser-pen incidents had become a “real concern”.
A survey by the union has found that half of pilots have experienced some form of attack in the past 12 months, he told the annual conference of the Airport Operators Association in London.
The BA co-pilot had the laser shone into his right eye in April this year on his approach to Heathrow. He was seen by doctors who determined that the “retina was burnt on one of his eyes”, McAuslan said.
It marked the first time that a pilot had suffered eye damage as a result of a laser-pen incident, he said.
McAuslan did not disclose the identity of the victim, but confirmed that he had not worked since. The case is subject to an employment tribunal, he said.
He said that the laser “was powerful enough to burn”, making it much more serious than those suspected of being used by troublemaking children.
“The kids’ ones - the pointers - wouldn’t have been powerful enough to do that, so we assume it must have been military strength,” he said.
“It is on the black market, target-setters for weaponry. We are very concerned about it. These haven’t been strong lasers [to date], but when something like this, which damages a man’s retina, comes on the scene then that really starts to worry us.”
McAuslan also told how pilots coming in to land at Glasgow airport have repeatedly reported laser-pen attacks from the same block of flats in the city. The police are investigating the source of the incidents, he said.
The sale of powerful lasers is restricted in Britain but can be bought online. They cost between £20 and £500.
A CAA spokesman said: “Shining a laser at an aircraft in flight could pose a serious safety risk and it is a criminal offence to do so. We strongly urge anyone who sees a laser being used in the vicinity of an airport to contact the police immediately.”
BA and Heathrow declined to comment.
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