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back to article LASER STRIKES against US planes on the rise

The next time you find yourself on an airline flight coming in for a landing, consider this: at that very moment, someone on the ground could be training a handheld laser at your aircraft's cockpit. It happens more often than you think. The FBI has only been keeping records of laser beams striking planes since 2004, but …

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Meh

Bah humbug - simulated picture

You're going to need something much more powerful that the average pointer laser to do any real damage and in any case, have you ever looked out of the window of a plane as you pass over the airport parking lot on a bright sunny day?

I'm not saying that this isn't a potential problem - just that as usual, the real dangers are completely overblown.

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...but the eye damage is real

Your typical 5-25mW red laser pointer may be fairly harmless. However, any IR or visible light laser over 30mW (new classification) or 500mW (old classification) is considered to be unconditionally hazardous to eyesight. So, where does that leave the readily available 400mW watt green lasers of those 1W blue laser light sabres? If you think these are hard to find, just search the internet for 'green laser' or 'laser light sabre'.

This isn't just a US problem: there are plenty of British idiots who think targetting aircraft is cool. Reading GASIL incident reports shows just how common this stupidity is.

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Thumb Down

Re: Bah humbug - simulated picture

Bull! Looks awfully realistic based on my experience.

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Meh

I'd love those odds

On a ticket for the national lottery!

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Re: ...but the eye damage is real...and rare

This article conflates the scary quantity (1 in 6900 flights) with the scary danger (high power laser pointers) even

though the powerful dangerous laser pointers are quite rare.

Anybody else wonder about the fact that there are thousands of dangerous laser strikes every day, but not a single crash and only unspecified occurrence of eye damage? It's a potentially dangerous situation, but the article is just sensationalistic, trying to catch your attention with a scary story.

Afraid of laser strikes? Better stay in bed today,because you might slip and break your neck.

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Facepalm

Re: Bah humbug - simulated picture

"...have you ever looked out of the window of a plane as you pass over the airport parking lot on a bright sunny day?"

At night a person's pupils will have dilated up to 25 times the size they are on a sunny day. The retina will undergo a physical change to make it many thousand times more sensitive to light. This takes about 20 minutes to happen and is why the cabin lights are dimmed before a plane lands at night - to give passengers' eyes time to adjust in case of emergency. Returning from night vision takes about 5 minutes.

Pilots need to be able to see, especially while they're landing.

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Anonymous Coward

...person's pupils will have dilated up to 25 times the size...

'shrooms. I've been there.

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Re: I'd love those odds

Even your average stateside Pick 4 is tougher to hit (1 in 10,000).

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Anonymous Coward

Re: ...but the eye damage is real...and rare

The thin red line between "Sci-Tech News" (as El Reg puts it) and FUD. >:->

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Stop

Re: Re: ...but the eye damage is real...and rare

"This article conflates the scary quantity (1 in 6900 flights) with the scary danger...." But it will only take one crash due to a dazzled pilot to kill possibly 100+ people. Many more if it happens in a neighbourhood rather than on the airfield itself.

My brother is a civil engineer and one of his first jobs as working on the design of walkways over London streets. The design his company wanted to use had an enclosed walkway to stop people jumping off or throwing things at the traffic below. At a meeting with the government department overseeing the design they rubbished the idea, said the covering added too much expense, and had a clever slew of statistics to back up their argument. A few weeks after the first walkway his company built was opened one of those "one-in-a-million" cases happened and two kids dropped a concrete slab on a woman's car, killing her and causing a multi-car pile-up. Just for the lulz, apparently.

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Holmes

Re: ...but the eye damage is real

Is that "dangerous when it emerges from the laser" of "dangerous after it has spread out to a six foot diameter beam several miles away"?

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Bronze badge

numbers don't add up, 5-25 mW over a 6 foot radius is too weak to have impact

But most of what the FAA is complaining about is incidents with hand held laser pointers.

So these are cheap devices and the light diffuses over distances of a thousand feet, instead of staying coherent like it would with an expensive laser. The article quotes 6 foot radius.

Spread that 5-25 mW over the 6 foot radius and it seems to me laughable it could cause eye damage.

I calculate 6000 nW per square inch (6 µW). Hardly a flash bulb.

25mW / (3.14 * (6ft *12in/ft/ 2)^2) = 6.14 *10^-6.

(I'm a little rusty, would someone please double check that?)

If they were complaining about industrial and medical lasers, if they had statistics for just those, they might have a strong point. But they don't. They didn't bother to collect the numbers.

I cannot help wondering if maybe what they think are handheld lasers are in fact something more powerful or higher quality.

For handheld lasers, I think the bigger hazard would be to truck and car drivers, where the distances are short and the light would still be concentrated and high intensity.

All that said, people shouldn't be messing around with these things.

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@Version 1.0

If you had bothered to search for more information you would have found that the 'simulated picture' is actually a still from a video demonstrating & talking about the dangers of lasers pointed at aircraft:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYAgnrfeUpk

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Anonymous Coward

Re: numbers don't add up, 5-25 mW over a 6 foot radius is too weak to have impact

Event the feeble hand-held lasers mess up the light amplifiers on the surveillance drones and police helicopters. But ... nobody gives at rats arse about that - and rightfully so.

So a better story must be created to support a ban.

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Boffin

Laser the moon

Very amusing:

http://what-if.xkcd.com/13/

There is also a link to purchase your own super high power (blind yourself) green laser... I'm amazed that they are legal!

And on topic, Version 1.0, the effect in the cockpit is like looking at a camera flash when your eyes are dark adjusted. NOT what you need when you are about to land a plane full of people.

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@AC 20:26 - Re: numbers don't add up,

Wrote : "Event the feeble hand-held lasers mess up the light amplifiers on the surveillance drones and police helicopters. But ... nobody gives at rats arse about that - and rightfully so."

Does that include when they are searching for April Jones? You are an idiot.

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Re: Bah humbug - simulated picture

Yeah dangerous like the sun.

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Re: Bah humbug - simulated picture

So on a REALLY sunny day, my pupil will be, say 1 mm, then at night, by your suggestion, my pupil will be an inch in diameter????

Your maths are as flaky as your biology.....

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Laser the moon

"There is also a link to purchase your own super high power (blind yourself) green laser... I'm amazed that they are legal!"

It's possible to build yourself a much more powerful SS laser by simply gutting a DVD or BluRay writer for its red or violet diode (respectively) and retrofitting it into a low power laser pointer. To ban these things effectively would mean outlawing all light emitting diodes.

Interestingly ≥100W diode pumped CO₂ lasers are freely available to order online. With the appropriate optics, that's sufficient to put holes though most solid materials.

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FAIL

Re: Bah humbug - simulated picture

"So on a REALLY sunny day, my pupil will be, say 1 mm, then at night, by your suggestion, my pupil will be an inch in diameter????

Your maths are as flaky as your biology....."

25 times the area, not the diameter - astonishing that you can criticise someone's maths when yours wouldn't even be enough to pass the 11 plus.

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Re: Bah humbug - simulated picture

You are probably possibly related to those people saying "it's ok to use phone / wifi on board of flying airplanes because I personally have not been killed while on one".

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Boffin

Re: Bah humbug - simulated picture

The 25x "size" (bad definition -say diameter, radius or area) is possible.

A pupil of 1.0 mm diameter gives area of .78 mm2

An "area" 25x = 19.63 mm2, gives us a pupil diameter of 5.00 mm.

Pls check my math, rounded to 2 places, it's 04:00 over here.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: ...but the eye damage is real...and rare

"Anybody else wonder about the fact that there are thousands of dangerous laser strikes every day, but not a single crash and only unspecified occurrence of eye damage? It's a potentially dangerous situation, but the article is just sensationalistic, trying to catch your attention with a scary story."

No. Not at all. Because -if you actually think about it - a temporarily blinded pilot doesn't plunge the stick forward and open the throttle, in order to immediately crash, no more than I feel the urge to press Ctl-Alt-Del during a sneezing fit while typing.

It's only likely to cause a crash if the plane is at low altitude and manoeuvring. In the meantime it's potentially causing problems and aborted landings and is a potentially more severe accident waiting to happen. And if it's caused eye damage, it might well have ended a pilot's career.

"Afraid of laser strikes? Better stay in bed today,because you might slip and break your neck."

So I should be allowed to string trip wires across the pavement, because pedestrians should have stayed in bed if they were afraid that some random fuck-nut would try to deliberately injure them with legal impunity?

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Boffin

Re: ...but the eye damage is real

1) the article is lumping all different powers of lasers together,giving a total number of incidents. I don't doubt either the availability nor the danger of high-powered lasers, but what percentage of them is actually used in these incidents, as opposed to the low-power 'teacher-pointing-to-a-blackboard' variety?

2) What's the exposure time neede to cause damage? It's hard enough to keep a laser fixed on a static target at km-scale ranges, when it's a (very fast-) moving target, how many of these incidents have the light in the cockpit for more than a few ms?

3) Modern airliners are capable of taking off and landing completely automatically

So all things considered I think the chances of a plane crash due to a laser pointer are as theoretical as the 'plane-will-crash-if-a-mobile-phone-is-turned-on', and is basically scaremongering. Still, if you get your kicks out of laser targeting as a sort of sport, why not just target the rear of the plane? The 'difficulty' of aiming the laser is identical and you aren't being an antisocial bastard shining your laser in people's eyes.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: @AC 20:26 - numbers don't add up,

Bah - it's like The Daily Mail: "Think Of The Children" -> Turn society into an open prison Before It Is Too Late!!

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Re: Laser the moon

There is also a link to purchase your own super high power (blind yourself) green laser... I'm amazed that they are legal!

Yes, because we've outlawed everything else people can use to blind themselves.

Consider the huge number of medical emergencies caused by power tools every year . (And in many cases those emergencies are stopping the user from doing significant damage to his (usually) or her home, too; so where injury doesn't result, property damage often will.) Or automobile-related injuries and deaths. Or those that result from using sporting equipment.

You can't save people from themselves.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Pls check my math

Why calculate the area of a circle? Make it a square, the ratio is still the same, and 25 times the area is 25^0.5

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Meh

Point regarding stats:

"Unreported incidents could bring the figure even higher."

Similarly, it could be that there has been no change at all, but reported incidents are higher. That is the problem with reported incidents. They almost invariably increase as people become aware how to report a problem. Also, the value was projected, so it may even take things like that into account - so that entire bit of speculation is largely unnecessary.

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HMB

Ironic Punishment

My mean side says we could make the older guys drive round a specially prepared high speed off road course while we shine lasers in their eyes and see how they like it.

My good side says that two wrongs don't make a right.

My mean side is far more entertaining.

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Re: Ironic Punishment

Just need some laser guided smart bitch slaps that work in reverse and seek the laser source.

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Coat

Re: Ironic Punishment

This misuse of lasers makes me furious. Lasers are meant to be attached to rostral parts of Selachimorpha, not waved at airplanes willy nilly.

Mine's the one with taxonomy textbook in the pocket.

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Mushroom

Re: Ironic Punishment

I was thinking more of a James Bond- villain type application of a laser to the balls of a perpetrator strapped to a table...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Ironic Punishment - use MIRRORS

So if you want to stop this nonsense, coat a patch of the bottom of the aircraft, near the cockpit, with a set of mirrors. Positioning 3 mirrors at 90 degrees to each other makes a retroreflector, which should send the laser straight back to the sender (a trick they have used on the Moon for ages to measure how far away it is). Obviously 3 large mirrors isn't going to be very aerodynamic, but you can get the same effect with an array of smaller ones, all behind a transparent panel (otherwise known as sticky tape - eg 3M's 3150).

Naturally a more aggressive approach would be to equip the aircraft with their own lasers, along with a targeting system, but the beauty of a retroreflective solution is the damage to the sender is self-inflicted (which should keep the lawyers quiet), and the equipment is solid-state (which makes it cheap, lightweight, and easy to retrofit to existing aircraft).

And if you're the type who doesn't worry about cost, practicality etc, (you might work for the military) then the reflected light might also prove useful for targeting your laser-guided missile retaliation.

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TRT
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Re: Ironic Punishment - use MIRRORS

Only allow laser sales of one wavelength into the unregulated market. Filter out that wavelength at the cockpit.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Ironic Punishment - use MIRRORS

Or, how about a laser detector / range finder just outside the cockpit.. once, it detects a laser strike, if it could lase the source back, not even with visible light, but get an angle and distance, match that with the planes GPS, and get a position from where the laser was pointed from, and then auto send the cords to local cops? The whole thing could be done in seconds, and if there was fuzz close by, a good fix on where it was sent from should give them reason enough to search property / hoodies in the imediate area.

Even if they find nothing, or it's a bit inacurate, it'll at least give them a rough idea of where they should be looking next time it happens.

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Re: Ironic Punishment - use MIRRORS

I think that would be more like proof the target had been hit!

However those rear total internal reflectors (like you should have on your bike so pedestrians know where to gesticulate to) would be better and make the plane well pretty!

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Re: Ironic Punishment - use MIRRORS

"to search property / hoodies in the imediate area."

It's a good idea, but, you're singling out the hoodies?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Ironic Punishment - use MIRRORS

No, if I was singling the hoodies, I wouldn't have mentioned properties, as mentioning both, makes it not a single target..

If the cops rolled by and seen a group of 'yoofs' hanging about, a minute or two after a strike had been reported, then I'm sure they could have a quick word, 'Would you mind if you emptied your pockets sir?'.

If they say 'no', they can walk on (no proof to search, but you can still ask); However, I'm sure the cops could take names for reference, due to 'an existing law that allows fines of up to $250,000 and prison terms of up to 20 years for interfering with the operation of an aircraft.', and the suspects are in the immediate vicinity.

So now you have some names from a small area, that might have people lasing comercial aircraft... if you can discount the street urchins, then you can start looking at the properties.. eliminate the obvious first..

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Stop

Re: Ironic Punishment - use MIRRORS

No.

The beam diverges over distance, and to reflect the beam directly back at the source, the mirror would need to be perfect in manufacture, angle, and the beam itself would need to be tight, otherwise all you're going to do is scatter green laser, diverging ever more from the point of origin.

Mirrors will not work.

Range finding for a GPS location, will tell you where it came from in a second or two, then let the boys in blue trawl the area for a while.. if it's kids in the street, they will get the message. If it's some nutter, he'll be shining from a property, and not on the street.. so that will be enough for the cops to go on anyway, because they would have rough cords.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Ironic Punishment - use MIRRORS

"The beam diverges over distance, and to reflect the beam directly back at the source, the mirror would need to be perfect in manufacture, angle, and the beam itself would need to be tight, otherwise all you're going to do is scatter green laser, diverging ever more from the point of origin. Mirrors will not work."

The fact the beam is diverging doesn't matter.

Each photon travels in a straight line, and so long as it hits part of the retroreflector the photon will be sent straight back. The only problem with a divergent beam is you'll need a large reflector to capture as much of it as possible.

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Re: Ironic Punishment - use MIRRORS

@16:43

'The fact the beam is diverging doesn't matter.

Each photon travels in a straight line, and so long as it hits part of the retroreflector the photon will be sent straight back. The only problem with a divergent beam is you'll need a large reflector to capture as much of it as possible.' /quote

Wouldn't that mean that you have to have some way to move / alter the mirror shape? Preferably trying to do this on a small window on the underside of the nose of plane, and considering that the target of the original beam is the glass cockpit?

If the beam is hitting it's target, then there will be no mirror to reflect it, and even if it misses, and hits any sort of reflector, it would have to stay there for a few seconds to have any chance of beaming back to the source (which you might note is not the eyes of the perp., but their hand / laser source). As the aircraft is moving more relevent to the source, the mirrors will have to change shape / move to account for the air speed.

This sort of mirror arrangement is in line with certain 4 shot air-bourne 747 chemical lasers.. the laser on those cases is the easy part.. the targeting is the hard part..

Still seems easier to have a small range / direction finder behind a small perspex window, just under the nose, and feed the data to ground assets.

The aircraft does not need to return anything other than a GPS of where the original beam came from.

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Bronze badge

Re: Ironic Punishment - use MIRRORS

What about cars? If this is happening how come car drivers don't notice it?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Ironic Punishment - use MIRRORS

"Wouldn't that mean that you have to have some way to move / alter the mirror shape?"

If the reflector was a simple flat mirror, then yes, but we're talking about retroreflectors here. They come in various forms, but the simplest is an arrangement of three mirrors at 90 degrees to each other, which when presented with a photon from a wide range of angles will send it back. You don't have to move the mirror to face the source/target. The wiki page on them is quite instructive.

Another neat aspect is that by its very nature it could even cope with multiple simultaneous attackers from different directions.

"If the beam is hitting it's target, then there will be no mirror to reflect it"

Indeed, but if the beam is divergent there's likely to be at least some of it hitting the surrounding parts of the aircraft where a reflector could be.

"and even if it misses, and hits any sort of reflector, it would have to stay there for a few seconds to have any chance of beaming back to the source"

I think you'll find it happens at the speed of light. The photons don't hang around for a chat before heading back home ;-)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Ironic Punishment - use MIRRORS

So, even if you can return the beam to the source of the hand / motorised tripod of the perp, you have achieved what? Now including a complex mirror assembly to do nothing, on the underside of a comercial plane.

I'd still go for the perspex window under nose, with an IR range finder, feed that back to the the GPS, and feed that back to ground assets...

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Paris Hilton

Re: Ironic Punishment - use MIRRORS

And here you have it. Asshats who point lasers at aircraft because it's cool and/or fun wind up getting the government involved and screw everyone else who have non-menacing uses for lasers and laser pointers.

Paris, menacing asshat.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Ironic Punishment - use MIRRORS

"So, even if you can return the beam to the source of the hand / motorised tripod of the perp, you have achieved what? Now including a complex mirror assembly to do nothing, on the underside of a comercial plane."

Nothing eh? I think we've established a retroreflector will light up the perp with some of his own beam. As for 'complex mirror assembly', it could probably be achieved with a mirrored moulding (complex, maybe, but that doesn't need to mean expensive) - and that's assuming the commercial sticky tape option isn't efficient/accurate enough.

"I'd still go for the perspex window under nose, with an IR range finder, feed that back to the the GPS, and feed that back to ground assets..."

Well the retroreflector gives your ground assets a laser target on the perps, without the cost and complexity of IR range finders and GPS. Don't get me wrong, I love high tech gadgets, it's just that if you can keep as much of it as cheap and simple as you can, you can more easily roll it out to more aircraft. (or with the savings you can then afford more of your enforcement: laser targeted missiles / local police etc)

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Stop

Re: Ironic Punishment - use MIRRORS

"Well the retroreflector gives your ground assets a laser target on the perps"

What it also gives is some kind of visible 'reward' for hitting the plane with a laser to the type of moron who thinks it's a good game in the first place.

We are not talking about people who either rationalise their actions or consider the implications. Lighting them up with a return beam is just going to act as positive reinforcement, from a psychological angle.

The chances of catching people doing this kind of thing are generally very slim, because they aren't likely to hang around to be caught, even if their location can be identified and they can be arrested. The only real countermeasure then is to come down like a ton of fucking bricks and ruthlessly prosecute and sentence the few who *do* get caught, in order to discourage others.

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Re: Ironic Punishment - use MIRRORS

Ah come on, let's not dillydally round with mirrors.

Just fit every plane with a laser guided missile (pocket edition).

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Re: Ironic Punishment - use MIRRORS

I've been lased while driving. It fucking HURTS and I couldn't see properly for about 5 minutes afterwards - and that was on a moderately lit suburban street. It's a lot darker in a cockpit.

The idiot who lased the street also lased a few aircraft on approach to Gatwick and the police helicopter searching for him. He got away with it by virtue of being outside a pub and ducked inside when the chopper got close. By the time the cars arrived the laser was nowhere to be found.

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Silver badge

Several things about these stories bug me...

1) You're hand holding a light source and trying to aim it at a point 500 feet away (try it)

2) The point you are aiming at it moving...

3) Even if you could manage 1 & 2, and had a pointer powerful enough, automatic landing systems have been in use for decades. The pilots are only there for situations where the automatic systems can't handle it (and to be honest, most pilots are too inexperienced to do anything better than the automatic systems anyway!).

Having said all that, the twats on the ground should get a good clip round the ears for even trying it.

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