A Virgin Atlantic flight from Heathrow to New York was forced to return to London yesterday after the co-pilot was dazzled by a laser.
The flight crew of flight VS205 declared a "Pan-Pan" emergency* shortly after 8pm as the Airbus A340 passed over the west coast of Ireland. The aircraft, carrying 252 passengers and 15 crew, was apparently targeted by a laser some six or seven miles west of Heathrow while at an altitude of 8,000ft. It returned to the airport as a precaution, according to Virgin Atlantic.
The company said: "Following this incident the first officer reported feeling unwell. The decision was taken by both pilots to return to Heathrow rather than continue the transatlantic crossing."
Back on the ground, the affected pilot was checked over by a paramedic, but did not require hospital treatment.
The Metropolitan police are investigating. A spokesman said: "Police were contacted at approximately 9.35pm on Sunday 14 February following reports of a laser shone in the direction of a commercial flight that had taken off from Heathrow airport. Inquiries continue to establish where the offence took place. There have been no arrests."
Under 2010 legislation, "shining a light at an aircraft in flight so as to dazzle or distract the pilot" may result in prosecution for "reckless endangerment", and a prison sentence. In 2014, three men were jailed after admitting endangering three aircraft with a laser at East Midlands Airport.
The Virgin Atlantic incident has prompted the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) to demand action. The association's general secretary, Jim McAuslan, insisted aircraft were being "attacked with lasers at an alarming rate and with lasers with ever-increasing strength".
He said: "It is an incredibly dangerous thing to do. Shining a laser at an aircraft puts that aircraft, its crew and all the passengers on board at completely unnecessary risk. Modern lasers have the power to blind, and certainly to act as a huge distraction and to dazzle the pilots during critical phases of flight."
McAuslan concluded by calling on the government "to classify lasers as offensive weapons which would give the police more power to arrest people for possessing them if they had no good reason to have them".
According to the BBC, "more than 8,998 laser incidents across the country were reported to the UK Civil Aviation Authority" between January 2009 and June 2015. The CAA's laser incidents data is here. ®
*Used for an "urgency" or "a condition of being concerned about safety and of requiring timely but not immediate assistance; a potential distress condition".