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Amateur astronomer’s laser beam temporarily blinded Air Malta pilot
Defence plays down laser effect, saying terrorists would have easier way to bring down flights
2 October 2013, 12:00am
The captain of an Air Malta flight today explained in court how he was hit by a laser beam as he approached the runway at Malta Airport, leaving him unable to see clearly for 10 minutes.
Captain James Fenech said the green laser had hit him in his eyes on the night of 16 June.
The court was hearing evidence against David Camilleri, of Rabat, who is accused of endangering an aircraft and its passengers through negligent behaviour, when he pointed a laser beam at an Airmalta Airbus. The plane flying from Frankfurt was at 2,500 feet and had started it approach to the MIA runway. The accused, an amateur astronomer, had told the police he did not mean harm and that he was using the laser to point it at a star.
The pilot recounted how a green laser light entered the cockpit when the plane was over Mellieha. "We could see it was coming from the Mosta area and minutes after we could clearly see from which roof it was coming," Fenech said.
While his eyesight was badly affected, the laser did not hit the First Officer who landed the plane as was already scheduled.
The court heard how the plane was on autopilot when the laser first hit it. First Officer Mario Bezzina was due to land the plane.
Magistrate Carol Peralta asked about the possible outcome had both pilots been partially blinded with the beam. "The plane would have landed on autopilot. While we regularly report laser sightings there have never been any incidents locally, however pilots abroad are known to have lost their eyesight," Captain Fenech said.
Defence counsel Kris Cilia argued that things should be kept in perspective. "God forbid that a €35 laser could bring down a plane. If this was actually possible terrorists would opt for the cheap option rather then go to the trouble of hijacking planes."
Dr Cilia went on to say that things should be explained in a responsible way. "If we give the impression that a cheap laser can lead to a plane crash, someone would go out and try it," he said.
Dr Cilia also told the court that while at a football game in Madrid, supporters had pointed 10 similar laser beams into the eyes of Barcelona footballer Lionel Messi. The footballer went on to score the penalty shoot-out while the lasers were in his eye. A photo of the incident was shown at court.
Next on the witness stand was First Officer Mario Bezzina, who told the court that even if 99% of a flight is flown on autopilot, the Malta International Airport is neither licensed nor equipped to accept landings on autopilot.
He told the court that at about three miles from the runway the cockpit was lit up with a bright green light. Moments later the pilots realised that someone had directed a laser beam at their aircraft. He said that the beam only affected human eyesight and had no impact on the plane's technical operations. "If we were both partially blinded, we'd have circled around until the effect wears off," he told the court.
Ingrid Micallef, one of the personnel entrusted with inspecting runways and runway security, confirmed that the pilot had informed the control tower of this incident. "This kind of incident is becoming more common. Most laser sightings are reported from Birzebbugia and Mosta," she said.
Police Officer Rodianne Girxi was one of three officers who investigated the incident. They said that on their way to the house on Independence Street, in Mosta, the laser beam was shone into their vehicle. "It was so bright we had to stop driving," she said.
"When we entered the house, there was the accused's brother-in-law who told us he had repeatedly told Camilleri to stop using the laser pointer from the rooftop."
The case was put off to December 11 for judgement.
Chris Mangion is MaltaToday’s court reporter, joining the newspaper in 2013.
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