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Aviators have never been more at risk of a laser strike in the cockpit than they are today. According to data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in 2021 the number of reported laser incidents in the U.S. hit a 5-year peak of 9,723 cockpit strikes. [i]
DETERRENCE VS. DEFENSE
Deterrence and defense are the only two paradigms protecting aviators from cockpit laser strikes, and the data shows that deterrence doesn’t seem to be working all that well. Despite the FAA threatening civil and criminal penalties plus $11,000 fines for people that shine lasers at aircraft [ii], the number of incidents isn’t dropping. In fact, there’s reason to believe the amount of laser strikes is underreported because pilots don’t want to risk getting medically grounded as a safety precaution after reporting an in-flight laser incident.
The impact of a laser strike on the flight deck of any type of aircraft is the same. There’s the loss of situational awareness that comes from being startled, the loss of vision and the ability to see instrumentation that comes from the glare of the laser hitting the cockpit’s windshield, and of course, there’s the risk of temporary and permanent eye injury.
Despite the danger, aviators sometimes resist the need defend themselves with traditional laser eye protection (LEP) because it can reduce situational awareness in the cockpit. Since laser strikes are most prevalent upon take-off and landing, protective lenses meant to filter harmful wavelengths of light can also dim aviator vision and filter out cockpit displays during the most critical phases of flight
Above: Laser pointed at the underside of a helicopter.
THE CASE FOR AVIATOR-OPTIMIZED LEP
This points out two issues highlighting the need for aviator specific LEP. First, anything meant to filter out a laser light will also filter out any light that shares that same wavelength. Filtering a green or blue laser means filtering green and blue from cockpit displays as well. Second, laser strikes present the greatest risk to aviators in low light. So, wearing a set of LEP that’s as dark as a set of sunglasses in the cockpit at night is a no-go.
Current, ground-to-ground LEP is designed to block much brighter laser output than pilots see at altitude, making the lenses darker than they need to be. And, according to FAA’s 2021 data [i], the most prevalent wavelengths of lasers seen by pilots is green (87%) and violet-blue (9%), so filtering light in other wavelengths is just darkening the lens with little benefit to aviators.
There’s a third reason for aviator optimized LEP, headset compatibility. LEP for pilots must be easy to put on and take off for use in various phases of flight without getting caught up on headsets and helmets.
Looking at the current slate of LEP offerings, it’s easy to see the capability gap that needed to be filled. Researchers at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) looked at the special demands faced by pilots and teamed up with Revision Military to make the next generation of aviation specific LEP. [iii]
They developed a new set of laser protective eyewear that addresses the need for laser protection in the cockpit without sacrificing aviator awareness, comfort, or convenience. The basis of the system is a lens formulation called CALI (Commercial Aviation Low Intensity) that filters the precise wavelength of light needed to block the most threatening lasers without blocking adjacent colored wavelengths, all while transmitting much more visible light than a traditional set of LEP. The result is comfortable LEP that doesn’t block or distort cockpit instrumentation and that works at night.
The CALI lens system was evaluated by Washington State Patrol pilots, and they found it met the needs of pilots. One of the aviators in the test group was Trooper Pilot/Tactical Flight Officer Camron Iverson.
Iverson says the aircraft he flies gets around 20 to 25 laser strikes a year and he’s experienced a laser strike from inside his police aircraft. “For about an hour I was having ‘white spot,’” he said. At night, the eye’s pupil is opened wide, making flash blindness greater and longer lasting.
Using the CALI lenses mitigates this threat. “I've been wearing them just about every flight that I go on, just in case,” said Iverson. “They're comfortable to wear and you don't really notice that they're on you. That's my experience.”
Revision’s CALI-C laser protective eyewear system uses the CALI lens, providing precision laser protection from common hand-held laser threats – green, blue-violet, and near-infrared – without washing out similar colors used on cockpit glass displays. It also transmits plenty of visible light, so aviators don’t feel like they are wearing sunglasses during nighttime operations. Revision’s CALI-C lens provides 59% photopic and 32% scotopic visible light transmission (VLT), which is the equivalent of a light tint that won’t significantly reduce pilot situational awareness.
In addition to the light transmitting features of the CALI-C lens itself, Revision adds an anti-reflective coating and an anti-fog coating to the Aviator SF-2 system. The anti-reflective coating is used on the outside of the lens to reduce unwanted reflections which are especially noticeable in a cockpit environment. This coating also helps to maximize VLT and increase cockpit indicator light recognition. And, the anti-fog coating on the inside of the lens gives aviators one less thing to worry about in enclosed, humid environments.
Revision’s CALI-C system is offered in two configurations tailored for either fixed-wing or rotary-wing environments. The Aviator SF-2 frame offers a lightweight metal frame with dual lenses – low profile and ideal for a fixed-wing cockpit. The StingerHawk frame offers a single wrap-around lens for maximum coverage, ballistic protection, and anti-fog performance for rotary-wing cockpits.
Both configurations of the CALI-C formulation are restricted for sale to aviation users only. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Above: Chart demonstrates the connection between hazard distances, visual affects and required protection level (OD) of laser eye protection.
Revision is relentlessly dedicated to protect vision by developing and delivering purpose-built eye protection for military and tactical use worldwide. The Company has invested in the development and delivery of advanced laser protective solutions over the past decade and become experts in both ballistic laser protective solutions to protect military, law enforcement and first responders today, as well as the distinct ability to develop custom solutions based upon the unique threat and situation. Revision specializes in integration for the optimum and necessary balance of protection and performance. The Company is headquartered in Essex Junction, Vermont, USA. For more information, visit www.revisionmilitary.com.
[iii] Pacinda, M. (2021, May 3) Washington State Patrol pilots successfully test special laser eye protection developed at Wright-Patterson Lab