Virgin Atlantic jet turns back to London's Heathrow airport after laser attack on pilots

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – Virgin Atlantic Airways aborted a flight to Israel after a laser beam was shone at the plane’s cockpit from the ground as it departed London Heathrow airport.

The Boeing 787 wide-body jet bound for Tel Aviv turned around over Paris following the incident on Monday night (March 15), the British carrier said in a statement.

Flight VS453 landed back at Heathrow at about 10.45pm, and passengers were offered overnight accommodation before continuing their journeys on Tuesday.

“This was a precautionary step taken by the operating crew,” a Virgin Atlantic spokeswoman said.

“We swiftly notified the police and remain in close contact with them and the Civil Aviation Authority.”

Laser pointers emerged as a safety hazard more than a decade ago, with the devices being flashed at planes near airports around the world.

Unlike a flashlight, beams from the pen-sized gadgets are highly concentrated and can travel for long distances without losing intensity.

While that allows them to be used to indicate objects in the night sky, it also means they can temporarily blind pilots even when shone from well beyond the airport perimeter.

A New York-bound Virgin Atlantic jet carrying about 250 passengers returned to Heathrow in 2016 after crew told air-traffic controllers there was a “medical issue” with a pilot following a laser-beam incident on takeoff.

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The number of cases recorded in the US climbed from 300 in 2005 to more than 7,000 in 2016.

The tally has since declined, though the Federal Aviation Administration reported an increase to 6,852 last year, despite the grounding of many flights amid coronavirus lockdowns.

While laser attacks are an offence punishable with jail terms in some jurisdictions, they are notoriously hard to police, given they can be carried out under the cover of darkness from almost any location with an implement small enough to conceal in a pocket.

Still, the FAA says it has imposed civil penalties of as much as US$30,800 (S$41,000) for multiple incidents.

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