NORAD Testing Laser Warning System at Reagan National Airport

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Pentagon is considering using lasers to warn pilots they've flown into restricted airspace, an unusual choice because the government also says terrorists might use the beams of light to blind pilots as they approach airports.

The Colorado Springs, Colo.-based North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, has been researching the use of alternating red and green lasers as a way to communicate with pilots flying too near the Capitol or the White House when they can't be reached by radio.

NORAD tried the ground-based laser signals on a test plane flying into Washington's Reagan National Airport last Friday. The low-intensity lights are safe for the eyes, the command said in a statement.

If the system becomes operational, the Federal Aviation Administration would send a special notice to pilots describing the lights and telling them what to do if they see them.

Retired airline Capt. Steve Luckey on Tuesday called the warning system "a step in the right direction - as long as they can show they're prudent or safe."

Luckey, who chairs the national security committee for the Air Line Pilots Association International, has long been concerned about reports of powerful green laser beams projected into cockpits. An FAA study concluded that lasers could cause a plane to crash.

Beginning in December, the FBI investigated a rash of incidents around the country in which lasers were shined through cockpit windows, including two such instances in Colorado Springs. Though no links to terrorism were found, the government said in January it would require pilots to report immediately any lasers beamed at airplanes.

Such notification would allow air traffic controllers to broadcast warnings and quickly notify law enforcement officers.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, hundreds of small planes have flown within the restricted airspace around the capital - a 15 3/4-mile radius around the Washington Monument. In some cases, fighter jets have been scrambled to check on a plane and escort it to a nearby airport.

In June, Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher flew into the restricted airspace on a small plane with a malfunctioning transponder. A communications breakdown led police to believe a hijacked plane might be heading toward the Capitol, forcing a frantic evacuation of people gathered to view President Reagan's casket.

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