Editor's Log

June 2005 Issue




Laser Tag: Editor’s Log 06/05

Remember a few months ago when you could open up a newspaper just about every day and read a new story about some airline crew or another being illuminated by a ground-based laser? There was rampant speculation in the media and among those who should know better that terrorists were practicing for their latest plan to bring down an airliner or three.

Then, the speculation and media frenzy—such as it was—all died out, even as cooler heads explained that new, low-powered, green-colored lasers had hit the market and were often being used by amateur astronomers to help with their star-gazing. That was then; this is now.

None other than our very own government has taken the idea of lasing aircraft and crews one step further. Beginning around May 21—about the time this magazine hits your mailbox—the folks at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) will implement something called the Visual Warning System (VWS), a “ground-based system that uses safety-tested low-level beams of alternating green and red lights to alert pilots that they are flying without approval in designated airspace,” according to a background document available on the FAA’s Web site.

The FAA says the VWS is designed to warn pilots who are violating the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) established over Washington, D.C., and cannot be contacted by radio. The implication is that NORAD will use VWS as a “last resort” prior to attempting to destroy any intruding aircraft. Also according to the FAA, there are no plans “at this time” to expand the VWS beyond the Washington, D.C., area.

While it’s laudable that NORAD and the FAA have gone to such lengths to warn pilots about their presence in the ADIZ, there are a number of problems with this approach. First of all, few pilots outside the D.C. area are even aware of the VWS, even though the FAA has issued a “Special Advisory Notice” found in Notam FDC 5/3267 to alert all airmen of the new system. Only a handful of pilots have received a demonstration of the new system, and all of them are intimately familiar with the ADIZ. It’s unlikely that any other pilot would know what was going on and know what to do if illuminated, the contents of the Notam notwithstanding.

Second, there have been literally hundreds of ADIZ violations since the ill-conceived airspace was established some two years ago. To date, not a single one of the violators has been accused of being a terrorist.

Third, the ground-based system won’t work when it’s going to be needed most—when the violating aircraft is above a cloud deck or in low-visibility conditions.

Finally, we’re not aware of any detailed effort—on either the FAA’s part or NORAD’s—to educate pilots on the VWS. A single Notam buried in the typical pre-flight briefing isn’t even close to enough, especially since nothing like this has ever been tried before outside of ATC light-gun signals.

This cure is worse than the disease, and is really only designed to increase the non-flying public’s comfort level and allow bureaucrats to sleep easier. We deserve better.


—Jeb Burnside