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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

Chris Mangion
2 October 2013, 12:00am
Picture of Barcelona footballer Lionel Messi presented in court as evidence of effectiveness or not of a laser beam.
Picture of Barcelona footballer Lionel Messi presented in court as evidence of effectiveness or not of a laser beam.

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 photojournalist, joining the newspaper in 2013.

In 1995...

lydon ciantar
I am a relative of the accused and today I was at the Court Room. Mr. Mangion, the reporter has not reported the facts correctly and is full of errors. Captain Fenech stated that he was blinded by the laser at Mellieha for 10 minutes. If this was true then the plane would have crashed because the re was only 5 minutes left to land the aircraft so the Captain was incapacitated after landing and in the aerodrome which in fact did not happen. Captain Fenech also stated that his co-pilot was not hit by the laser beam. When the co-pilot Mr. Bezzina testified he said that he was also hit by the laser. So here we have conflicting evidence, the Captain says he was blinded and the co-pilot not and the co-pilot is saying that he was blinded it too. So if the co-pilot was blinded too, so we have both pilots blinded and could not land the aircraft. What is the truth here? Did the plane land by itself whilst Runway 13 is not licenced to accept full autopilot landing because the ILS is not CAT3 landings. The statement of the reporter ""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."" Magistrate Peralta has ignored this statement because it was hearsay so not admissible in the case. If Mr. Camilleri wanted to endanger the aircraft, he would have pointed the laser and escaped the location where he was staying to evade enforcement. But Mr. Camilleri was celebrating Father's Day on his brother's roof house party and was just showing a star to one of his nephews which the beam could have crossed the aircraft cockpit. There is no malice involved. I suggest the Editor of this newspaper to read the court transcript and reveal how some parts of this article are libelous and incorrect.
The truth is that the astronomer thought the aeroplane was a UFO and he was trying to shoot it down. It is a simple case of missed identity, apologies are in order.
Josanne Cassar
The solution is simple: do not fly planes over land. Malta has the luxury of being surrounded by sea and if flights adopt a different flight path just a couple of kilometres away, such incidents will be avoided AND more importantly such paths are safer and do not disturb people with repeated airplane noise.
enter to win