The U.S. government will launch a system next month that uses a ring of laser lights around the Washington area to alert all pilots who breach restricted airspace.
Officials from the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) said the visual warning system is designed to quickly warn commercial, government and private pilots of planes and helicopters by shining alternating red and green lights at their aircraft.
The ground-based system will be used around the large restricted flight zones that include Washington’s three big airports.
It uses eye-safe lasers shining low-level light beams — in day or night — that can be aimed at violating aircraft alone and not seen by others in the air or on the ground.
The system is designed to warn a pilot who has flown into off-limits airspace set up by the Federal Aviation Administration after the Sept. 11, 2001, hijack attacks.
“This is not a replacement for anything we currently have,” said Lt. Col. Bob Hehemann of NORAD. The new system will be in addition to the military’s existing one that uses flares and fighter jets to warn pilots.
If warnings are ignored and the aircraft remains in restricted space it could be shot down. All pilots with permission to fly into or through Washington airspace — mainly commercial flights — must transmit special identification codes to air traffic controllers.
Several hundred pilots enter restricted airspace every year, but most are local pilots and all of the instances have been inadvertent, an FAA spokesman said.
One high-profile incident occurred last year when the plane carrying Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher to former President Ronald Reagan’s funeral entered restricted airspace. The incident sparked panic in the city due to miscommunication between the FAA and law enforcement.
NORAD has launched a public relations campaign to teach pilots about the lights and explain what they mean.
This week they took some pilots and reporters on flights to see the warning system in action. Flying about six miles east of the Capitol on a clear night on Thursday, red-red-green bursts of light could be clearly seen from one helicopter.
Each set of laser lights, radar and cameras cost about $500,000 but officials would not say how many were used.