Pilots blinded by laser, accused says aircraft was outside range

‘Laser did not have enough range’, says man accused in court of blinding pilots with laser while showing stars to his nephew.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi (pictured) was also blinded by a laser doing a football match.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi (pictured) was also blinded by a laser doing a football match.

The son of a retired air traffic controller admitted in court that an Air Malta plane crossed his line of sight while he was pointing a laser to the stars to show his seven-year-old nephew.

David Camilleri of Rabat, a member of the Malta Astronomical Society and astronomy amateur, is charged of endangering an aircraft and its passengers through careless or negligent behaviour when he directed a laser beam at the aircraft which was on its way to land at MIA.

Taking the witness stand in his own case, David Camilleri explained that on 16 June he was on the roof of his brother's residence in Mosta celebrating Father's Day. "On that night Saturn and Mars were really bright and I pointed them out to my nephew using a laser beam," the accused said.

He exhibited an eBay invoice and specifications of the laser he used from the rooftop. Camilleri said the planets were located south-west from the residence at the time of the incident.

"While I was using the laser an aircraft crossed my line of sight, and I did not switch off the laser. I could have hit the plane on its side but I never pointed the beam at its cockpit," Camilleri held. Furthermore, the laser's specification sheet read the beam's range is of 3km. In his evidence the plane's captain claimed the laser hit his cockpit when he was flying over Mellieha, a village 9km away from where the accused was at the time.

In a previous sitting the co-pilot had alleged the beam had entered the cockpit when they flight started its approach. Quoting and exhibiting online documents, Camilleri explained a plane was on its approach at around 3km from the taxiway, "however this would have placed the airplane over Qormi, and well past Mosta. Even if I pointed the laser directly at the plane I'd have hit it in the tail not the cockpit," he said.

Asked by the defence counsel why he was so well versed about air traffic and flight paths, Camilleri said his father was a retired air traffic controller. "He thought me the ropes of his profession."

Prosecuting inspector Martin Sammut objected to the information being given by the witness, saying he was not an expert on the subject. "What the accused is saying is his mere opinion based on online document and not an expert's report or definition of aviation terms," the inspector said.

Referring to the laser specification document exhibited by the accused moments before, the prosecution asked Camilleri to read the included warning about laser usage. The brochure warned that pointing laser at aircrafts was illegal and users could be prosecuted for such an offence.

Furthermore it read that such behaviour could disrupt the aircraft's flight. The court erupted into legal arguments over the definition of the term 'aircraft on approach', 'aircraft about to land' and the actual range and effect of the laser used by Camilleri.

Magistrate Carol Peralta postponed the case to 25 February 2014. Meanwhile the court will appoint an independent court expert on aviation to better explain the terms in question. Dr Chris Cilia is appearing for the accused.

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elwenzu: The beam did not need to reach a planet. Looking at the beam path, the nephew can easily follow the path to see the planet or star of interest. Also, the brochure saying a laser has a certain range is meaningless without also specifying the brightness (or irradiance) at the range. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration developed guidelines for how much laser light (irradiance) a pilot can have in their eyes without interfering with a flight. There are four flight zones; the closer to an airport, the lower the laser light allowed. It is possible to determine whether the accused's laser was below the US limits; this would require a bit more info than is in the story. Finally, in many countries including the US, the amount of light does not matter -- it is illegal to aim a pointer at an aircraft or its flight path, no matter how low the irradiance.
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The location of the accused is known, the flight path of the airplane is known - so the distance can be verified. If necessary, take the laser pointer, install a fresh set of batteries, take it to the same distance at night and verify whether it really can cause the effects described by the pilots.
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This laser had a range of 3km. So what exactly did this so called astronomer hope to achieve using his toy to point out planets which, if I'm not mistaken, are slightly further away than 3 kilometers!