Cape Town - A Virgin Atlantic pilot was hit by a laser on a New York-bound flight VS025 at 8 000 ft, only 9.6 km west of London after take-off from Heathrow.
The pilot was flying Airbus A340 over the Atlantic Ocean which departed at 9:35pm Sunday evening, with 252 passengers and 15 crew members on board, reports Daily Mail.
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Police are now searching for suspects who are believed to have shone the military strength laser into the cockpit. Suspects can face up to five years in prison. According to the Daily Mail, if the Airbus went down it would be a life sentence. The laser used is so powerful, it could melt plastic at close range.
The laser would have resembled something similar to this...
The pilot was sent to hospital after returning to Heathrow and is reported as 'badly hurt'.
Studies suggest that the attack was done from somewhere along the M3 corridor in Surrey, between Weybridge and Sandhurst.
Jane Alexander, Aviation Expert told BBC that laser strikes are increasing and victims face the risk of becoming blind.
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An attack is similar to an extremely bright lightning strike, she explained, and if it is shone in one's eyes - it is fatal. Passengers feared for their lives after the attack was announced, and the Airbus made a U-turn.
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Passenger Bethany McHutchinson explained it was a serious matter and "it could have put everyone on the plane in danger".
Virgin Atlantic have said the safety of all on board flight VS025 was a 'top priority'.
In the first six months of 2015, laser incidents rose with 48 in London Heathrow, 32 in Birmingham, and 24 in Leeds Bradford. The laser shining is believed to have become a very dangerous game that aircraft spotters play, Aviation expert Julian Bray told BBC.
The Civil Aviation Authority asks travellers to report any person seen using a laser inside an airport at night, immediately.