Laser strikes could cause pilot to lose control, warns air ambulance chief

The Great North Air Ambulance has been targeted with laser strikes several times.

The Great North Air Ambulance has been targeted with laser strikes several times.

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The chief pilot of the region’s air ambulance charity has warned against the dangers of laser strikes after his aircraft was targeted again while returning from a rescue mission.

Captain Jay Steward, of the Great North Air Ambulance Service, was flying back from James Cook University Hospital, Middlesbrough, to the charity’s base at Durham Tees Valley Airport when a green laser beam was shone into the helicopter’s cabin on Sunday evening.

Captain Jay Steward, chief pilot of the Great North Air Ambulance Service. Pic: GNAAS.

Captain Jay Steward, chief pilot of the Great North Air Ambulance Service. Pic: GNAAS.

The aircraft was preparing to land at the time, and was at about 700ft when one of the aircrew spotted the laser beam being shone from the ground.

The blinding beam lit up the aircraft repeatedly, presenting a serious risk to Captain Steward, who is a vastly experienced former military pilot, and his crew.

He said: “It might all seem like fun and games from the ground, but I’m telling you it’s no fun at 700ft, with a crew of dedicated medics on board, when the beam could be burning your retina and you are just trying your best to get everyone home safely.”

The incident happened at about 9.25pm. As the crew were flying in darkness, Mr Steward had already briefed them about the possibilities of laser strikes, given that the crew were targeted in the area around James Cook University Hospital in November.

The Great North Air Ambulance near Kirkwhelpington, where it had been called to prior to the laser strike. Pic: GNAAS.

The Great North Air Ambulance near Kirkwhelpington, where it had been called to prior to the laser strike. Pic: GNAAS.

“It’s a shame we are having to prepare our crews for laser strikes, but that’s the world we are living in sadly,” he said.

“I can’t emphasise enough how dangerous this is. It causes temporary sight loss, which could quite feasibly cause the pilot to lose control of the aircraft.

"The consequences of that don’t bear thinking about.”

It is thought the beam originated somewhere near the roundabout outside Tesco at Eaglescliffe.

Captain Steward added: “They are idiots. We would ask people that if they see someone using a laser pen recklessly, to call the police.”

The incident was reported to the police and aviation authorities. On this occasion, none of the aircrew suffered any damage to their eyesight.

Meanwhile, the air ambulance’s aviation operators Multiflight are researching protective visors which could be introduced onto the aircraft when a suitable solution is found.

“As with everything we buy, the money from this will have to come from public donations,” said Captain Steward.

The aircraft was returning to base from James Cook having flown a man from Kirkwhelpington, Northumberland, to the hospital with life-threatening head injuries.

The man, believed in his 20s, was injured when the car he was driving collided with an HGV. He arrived in a stable condition.