Are Laser Pointers Dangerous to Pilots?

by Jason Harlow , original version May 2013, latest revision Nov. 2018

On May 28, 2012 the Toronto Star headline was Laser Attacks on Pilots are on the Rise, Records Show, and the article contained the phrase "While the immediate concern is keeping control of the aircraft, for pilots there is also the worry of suffering a long-term eye injury that can keep them grounded." Occasionally I have used 5 milliWatt class 3A green laser-pointers at "star parties".  A star party is an outdoor gathering at night, often with a telescope, to look at the stars.  Green light scatters off air and dust much better than red light, so when you shine a green laser up into the night sky you can easily see the beam itself.  That way, it can be used as a convenient pointer to point out constellations and planets to a large group of people.

So I have been wondering if, (a) my lasers could accidentally cause long-term eye injuries to pilots far above, and (b) my lasers might accidentally be distracting to the pilots far above. 

My Experiment:

I took 3 different green laser pointers, all 5 mW, all of which were purchased for less than $50 each.  I measured the spot size at 1, 10, 15, 40 and 97 m.  I then plotted distance versus beam diameter and did a best-fit linear slope.  I found a slope of 1.04 +/- 0.09 mm/m and a y-intercept of 1.4 +/- 0.5 mm.  This means that, at the laser pointer itself, the beam diameter is about 1.5 mm.  As it travels, the diameter increases by 1 mm for every 1 m away from the laser pointer.

Here is the spot at 1 m. It is 2.5 mm in diameter.

Here is the spot at 10 m. It is 12.5 mm in diameter.

Here is the spot at 15 m. It is about 15 mm in diameter.

Here is the spot at 40 m. It is about 5 cm in diameter.

At 97 m, you can barely see the spot anymore, especially since it is outdoors during the day. But I could see it and estimated it to be 11 cm in diameter.

At 97 m I turned the camera around and took a picture with the camera directly in the laser beam. Even in the daytime, it is quite bright! Looking directly into the laser beam was very annoying at this distance, and it left spots in my vision which took a few minutes to disappear.   This experiment was done in the middle of the day when my eyes were already adapted to full light.  If this was done at night when my eyes were adjusted to low light levels, the effect would have felt a lot worse. 


At a distance of 5 m away from the laser, the beam diameter is 7 mm, which is a typical diameter of the dark-adapted pupil (Bradley JC, Bentley KC, Mughal AI, Bodhireddy H and Brown SM 2011, Journal of Refractive Surgery, v.27 issue.3, pg.202).  This means that if you are within 5 m of the laser and it is shot directly into one of your dark-adapted pupils, all 5 mW of power will enter your eye, and then be focused onto your retina.

At a distance of 10 m, the beam diameter is 12 mm, and its area is 110 sq-mm.  Since a 7 mm-diameter dark-adapted pupil has an area of 34 sq-mm, only 1.5 mW of power will enter your eye if this laser is shot directly in.

At 100 m, the beam is 10 cm in diameter with an area of 8700 sq-mm, which is 250 times bigger than your dark-adapted pupil.  The maximum power which can enter your eye at this distance is 0.02 mW.

At a distance of 1 km, which would be typical for a low-flying aircraft, the maximum power which could enter a pilot's eye is 0.0002 mW, or 0.2 micro-Watts.

Note that Class 1 lasers have powers less than 0.024 mW, and they carry no warning label because they are incapable of causing eye damage.  My little experiment indicates that a Class 3A laser-pointer (5 mW) becomes equivalent to a Class 1 laser at a distance of 90 m or farther. 

As for actual retinal damage, it has been estimated that it would take 10 seconds of staring directly into a class 3A laser in order to damage your retina. But, in practice this is impossible to do because it feels very painful and you immediately look away. [See for a nice discussion of this.]


In answer to my questions above, I think that (a) a pilot could not suffer a long-term eye injury from getting accidentally shot with my class 3A laser on the ground. There have been no reports of a long-term eye injury being caused by a class 3A laser even at point-blank range, and for a pilot more than 100 m away from the laser, it seems impossible.

In answer to (b), I found, somewhat surprisingly, that laser-light shining into your eye is quite distracting and annoying, even in daytime conditions!  If it was night, this could temporarily eliminate your night vision, and leave big spots in your vision that could be dangerous if you are trying to operate a vehicle, like a plane for example.   In, 2018 I was contacted by a professional pilot, Ryan Zorgdrager, who stated that:

"When a laser strike happens the light is often refracted and spread throughout the cockpit due to scratches in the window and the angle the light relative to the window, lighting up the whole cockpit. Side effects are loss of night vision and flash blindness in the short term."

This makes sense, and I can understand that blinding the pilots of an aircraft is a big danger to everyone, not just the pilots.  So, I think the basic answer is that, yes, the short-term effects of laser-induced blindness or distraction could quite be dangerous to pilots, and people should definitely be aware of this.  I may have to rethink my star party habits..

I also have been notified, again by this professional pilot, that although my laser usage has certainly never been malicious, simply using these green lasers at star parties could be illegal, and I think it's wise to take note of federal regulations: .  Good information!