The U.S. Air Force will roll out tens of thousands of specialized spectacles to airmen around the globe to protect their eyes from lasers and shrapnel.
The gear aims to limit the potential risk to pilots and other aircrew amid a recent spike in lasing incidents. It’s also the first time that Air Force-issued eyewear is designed to block lasers as well as ballistic threats, the service said Sunday.
“Getting lasered without having proper protection could not only prevent the pilot from flying and landing an aircraft safely, but it could also cost them their career,” Capt. Pete Coats, who leads the eyewear initiative at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, said in the release.
When a laser pointer’s beam hits an aircraft’s windshield or an eyeball itself, the light can cause flash blindness that is particularly dangerous for troops that are taking off or preparing to land, according to the Air Force Safety Center. Preventing those disruptions can save lives in the air and on the ground.
A suite of eight types of eyewear — including daytime and nighttime anti-laser spectacles, anti-ballistics glasses, and visors that work with night-vision goggles — can shield airmen from those potentially deadly effects.
The gear is built to protect all aircrews except for pilots in the U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane and the F-35A Lightning II fighter, the service said In a statement. Aircrews on platforms that fly low and slow, such as helicopters or tiltrotor aircraft, need defenses against both lasers and ballistics, whereas those in fighter or bomber jets likely only need to fend off unwanted beams.
The service plans to distribute more than 42,000 pairs of the glasses and visors to its units over the next three years.
The need for such measures has played out at installations around the world, such as Italy’s Aviano Air Base, which said in October it had logged 13 lasing incidents against its aircraft over the past year.
The lights were most often directed at HH-60 Pave Hawk search-and-rescue helicopters, the base said, which are easier targets than the F-16 Fighting Falcon jets also stationed there.
American and Italian officials are crafting a process to notify local law enforcement of perpetrators’ locations, Aviano’s 31st Fighter Wing said in a release.
Aviano’s woes are part of a surge in the number of laser strikes reported to federal officials over the past few years.
The Federal Aviation Administration has logged more than 10,300 lasing incidents and 28 injuries so far in 2023, surpassing the nearly 9,500 events that were reported in 2022.
Airmen most often reported laser incidents in Florida, New Mexico and Texas within the continental U.S., and in undisclosed locations overseas, between October 2016 and December 2022, according to data collected by the Air Force Safety Center. The service recorded nearly 550 incidents around the world within that time period.
Aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft is a federal crime punishable by as many as five years in prison and up to $280,800 in fines.
The Air Force Office of Special Investigations asks anyone with knowledge of a lasing incident to report them to the FAA or the Air Force.
“These are not harmless pranks,” the agency said.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.