WestJet Pilot Injured In Airborne Laser Incident

A WestJet pilot has been placed on medical leave after having his eyes burned by a laser pointer. The incident, which occurred on Saturday evening, took place around 40km outside of Orlando International Airport. The crew were able to land the plane safely, and the FAA are investigating the source of the laser.

The incident happened to a WestJet 737-800 inbound to Orlando on Saturday. Photo: WestJet

A WestJet aircraft heading from St Johns, Newfoundland to Orlando, Florida, was hit by a laser pointer on Saturday. A pilot was struck by the light and suffered damage to his sight. According to reports by Click Orlando, the pilot has been placed on medical leave and will receive evaluation in the coming days.

What happened?

Flight WS1948 left from St. Johns (YYT) around thirty minutes later than planned at 18:55 local time. The Boeing 737-800, registered C-FZRM, was heading to Orlando International (MCO) over 3,000km away, scheduled to land around four and a half hours later.

The flight was largely uneventful until, around 40km outside of the airport, the laser incident occurred. The plane had already begun its descent, and was around 10,000ft in the air over Sanford when a green laser light struck the cockpit.

One of the pilots took a hit direct to the eyes, causing a burning sensation. Despite this, the crew managed to land the aircraft safely, touching down minutes later, at around 21:50 local time.

WS1948 was almost at Orlando when the strike occurred. Image: FR24

WestJet spokesperson Morgan Bell provided the following statement to Simple Flying:

“On Saturday, May 18, the crew onboard WestJet flight 1948 from St. John’s to Orlando reported a laser strike incident upon descent into the Orlando International Airport (MCO) .

“Laser incidents pose a serious concern to crew and aircraft safety and have serious repercussions for those found to be shining lasers in a manner that could result in injury or damage. These incidents are reported immediately to local authorities for further investigation.

“Pilots are extremely focused during all phases of flight, but especially during take-off and landing, when most laser incidents occur. When any sort of light enters the flight deck, pilots are trained to look away and maintain focus but they must also maintain vigilant with respect to their surroundings and monitor the apron prior to landing.

“Pilots take on an incredible responsibility controlling an aircraft, and it is WestJet’s duty to ensure a safe work environment for them to operate in.

“Any pilot who reports being struck by a laser is required for safety and health reasons to have an ophthalmology evaluation. For privacy reasons we are not able to provide further details.”

Where did the laser come from?

According to an incident report from the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office, retrieved by Click Orlando, the crew were unable to determine where the laser was coming from, due to risk of additional exposure.

However, after the strike, a green light was reportedly seen by crew, coming from the area of Covington Drive in Deltona. A Volusia County deputy attended the address, but the people in the home did not have any knowledge of the attack, nor did they own any lasers. They did, apparently, have a green colored porch light at the house.

The WestJet pilot has been placed on medical leave pending further evaluation over the next few days. The FAA are reported to be investigating the incident.

Laser strikes on aircraft

According to the FAA, the number of laser incidents reported last year was 5,663. This is the lowest number since 2014. However, this is a massive 250% increase since the FAA first started tracking laser incidents in 2010. Although this increase is likely partly due to increased awareness and reporting, it’s still a massive number of strikes and a serious concern to the aviation community.

Laser strike
Laser strikes can temporarily blind pilots. Image: Air Combat Command

In the US, it is illegal to aim laser pointer beams at aircraft or their flight path. The law states that violation of these rules could result in five years In prison or up to a $250,000 fine. The FAA can impose a civil penalty of up to $25,000 in addition to any other civil or criminal charges.

Just weeks ago, a man from Ohio was sentenced to jail for 30 days and put on probation for a year after aiming a laser at a Southwest Airlines 737. In March last year, a 23 year old was sentenced to 1.5 to 3 years in prison for a laser attack on a MedEvac helicopter. And, in November 2017, an Arizona man was sentenced to two years’ probation and received a $2,000 fine for lasering the sheriff department’s plane.

Other nations take a dim view of laser activity around aircraft too. In the UK this month, a 50 year old man was sentenced to nine months in prison for aiming a laser pen at a helicopter, and in Northern Ireland, a 20 year old received two years’ probation for a laser offence.