Dhaka airport: Blinding lasers target planes to distract pilots during landing

On the evening of Oct 2, a NOVOAIR flight from Cox’s Bazar was preparing to land in Dhaka. As the flight crew made their landing announcements, a sudden flash of searing green light burst through the window, shocking the passengers with its intensity.

Unsettled by the incident, the passengers asked the crew if they had been struck by laser lights. “It’s a regular occurrence,” one member of the crew said.

Asked about the strange phenomenon, the plane’s pilot and other representatives from the airline said that many flights experience this “laser attack” as they descend on the runway at Shahjalal International Airport after nightfall. They believe it is a kind of “prank”.

The powerful ray can render a viewer blind for a few seconds if it directly hits the eye.

Every second of an aircraft’s landing process is essential and any interruption at the time, no matter how harmless the intent, could prove disastrous.

Mahbubur Rahman, the president of the Bangladesh Airlines Pilots’ Association or BAPA and an experienced pilot in his own right, expressed concern and annoyance over the recurring issue.

“It is a dangerous thing to do,” he said. “It happens when a plane descends at Dhaka airport. It sometimes happens during take-off too.”

“It usually doesn’t bother us when we’re in the air, but when we’re coming in for a landing it can strike the eye and render us temporarily blind.”

The effect of the lasers is somewhat similar to looking directly at welding work without proper eye protection, he said.

“We must do something to put an end to this,” Mahbubur said, adding that he had been a victim of these “laser attacks” several times himself. “Whether through police intervention or raising public awareness of the matter – it has to stop.”

“It might be that whoever is involved is just having a bit of fun. But they don’t understand how dangerous it can be. Every second of a landing is crucial.”

Highlighting his own experiences, Mahbubur said the “laser attacks” weren’t the work of a single person, but coordinated by several people.

Many crowd Dolipara area just behind the runway of Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka to watch flight landing and take-offs. Photo: Abdullah Al Momin

“You may not believe me, but they’re not alone. Two or three people coordinate to direct the lasers at the planes from two or three different places.”

A pilot for a private airline, on condition of anonymity, said: “Those involved in this may not even know how dangerous this is.”

“Every airport has a landing chart. The chart specifies how high planes are required to fly at certain distances from the airport. We follow that chart during landing.”

“During landing, we are in close contact with the airport control tower. Not only can laser attacks break our concentration or cloud our vision, but they can also interfere with following the landing chart and taking accurate readings from our instruments.”

Kamrul Islam, a spokesman for US-Bangla Airlines, said the carrier’s flights had been victims of such “attacks”.

“Anything that can distract a pilot during landing poses a serious risk,” he said. “Such an incident could confuse the pilot and lead to disaster.”

“I think those who are doing this are probably just having some fun. But they’re not considering the consequences, or, perhaps they don’t have the capacity to do so. We need to make them understand the situation.”

Raising public awareness of the dangers of such a “prank” is the key to avoiding such incidents in the future, the airline official said.

Zia Rahman, a professor at the Dhaka University Department of Criminology, believes indiscipline and a lack of governance may play a part in the actions of these dangerous “pranksters”.

“We have cities now, but we have yet to develop a proper civic or law-abiding culture. As such, people still do not have an innate understanding that they cannot do what they want.”

Bangladesh and other third-world countries were once known as “soft states”, where institutions have not developed properly. “Lack of proper governance, indiscipline and corruption are plenty in these countries. We haven’t improved much from that situation,” said Zia.

He also called for an investigation to find out whether the “laser attacks” are “attempts of sabotage”.

“We must consider whether this is the work of some organised ring and whether there is any anarchism involved.”

“We should also investigate whether terrorism or any other negative motive is involved. We have a tendency to take things lightly. We only take action once something significant happens.”

The government should take immediate preventative action, the professor said.