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New York–Bound Airliner Returns To London Due To Laser Incident

An international flight was forced to return to Heathrow Airport Sunday night, after a pilot was hit in the eye by a laser beam aimed into the cockpit. "Aircraft are attacked with lasers at an alarming rate and with lasers with ever-increasing strength," the British Airline Pilots Association said after the incident.

More than 250 people were aboard the Virgin Atlantic flight when it took off from London — but that's when "a crew member contacted air traffic control to say the co-pilot had a medical issue after being struck by a laser," Larry Miller reports from London for our Newscast unit.

"Authorities are trying to identify who was responsible," Larry says.

Air traffic control officials were informed of the incident in a radio transmission that was then placed on the website.

The crew member requested a route back to the airport for the flight, VS25; passengers were put up in hotels after their flight was postponed overnight, the BBC reports.

The incident underlines the safety risks posed to aircraft by lasers, says BALPA General Secretary Jim McAuslan. The pilots' group has urged the British government to classify lasers as offensive weapons, a step that it says would make it easier for police to pursue laser owners who abuse the devices.

"It is an incredibly dangerous thing to do. Shining a laser at an aircraft puts that aircraft, its crew and all the passengers on board at completely unnecessary risk," McAuslan says in a statement about Sunday night's flight.

He added, "Modern lasers have the power to blind, and certainly to act as a huge distraction and to dazzle the pilots during critical phases of flight."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.