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Written by Fareed "TurboGoat" Guyot   
Sunday, 05 November 2006


Can a cell phone or a Game Boy really bring down an airplane? We have been asked for years to extinguish our cigarettes and power-down our phones. However, the recent news of onboard wireless phone, email, and internet bingo offerings by Ryanair in Europe and similar services soon to be offered by US domestic carriers calls into question conventional wisdom about wireless communications onboard aircraft. Now, the argument seems to hinge more on money than safety.

Through the 1950s pilots used maps and AM radio receivers in their airplanes called Automatic Direction Finders (ADF) to navigate between AM radio stations known as Non-Directional radio Beacons (NDB). In the 1960s Very High Frequency (VHF) Omni-directional Range (VOR) navigation was established and is still used today as are NDBs.

The airliner you are riding on probably uses GPS to fly point to point. Infact most aircraft today including small private aircraft use GPS as their primary means of navigation. However, when you depart or arrive in the airport area; most traffic sequencing is referenced to ground based VORs which are used to guide the aircraft in low cloud and visibility situations to the runway. VORs operate on VHF frequencies of 108.1 through 117.95 MHz. Additionally all aircraft communications radios operate from 118–132 MHz. GPS operates from 1200-1600 MHz. Cell phones and other similar devices operate both at the 800-900 and 1800-1900 MHz range depending on the network and what kind of service you have.

The anntennas for VORs, GPS, and other navigation related systems are mounted at various locations on the aircraft, usually on the belly, roof, and tail.

Today’s modern aircraft have miles of wiring due to the sophistcated avionics up front and the increasing amount of in-cabin eletronic gadgets available to passengers. It is assumed that all of the internal wiring is sheilded and is largely protected from emissons from Personal Electronic Devices (PEDs) brought on-board by passengers. However, the external antennas are not because they are trying to pick up the minute signals of ground based VORs, and space based GPS which in many cases is less than 1 Watt in strength.

When this signal strength is placed up against PEDs such as cell phones and laptops that can send out an electromagnetic burst up to 3 Watts; that can overwhelm technology operationing on nearby frequency bands. Interference at altitude has been the easiest for pilots to deal with. But the FAA and FCC are still worried about “down low” or the critical phases of flight such as departure and arrival where the margin of error is small as VOR signals are used to guide aircraft down to 200 feet above the runway in ½-1/4 mile visibility. Pilots will say this is the last place they want a PED causing a hiccup in their VOR reception.

The debate over the true effect of use of PEDs rages due to the random nature of the interference. PED interference has never been named as a factor in any crash of an airplane. However there are many documented cases of interference temporarily disabling autopilots, causing erroneous indications on VOR receivers etc. The aluminum skin sheilds the external antennas from the vast majority of the interference a PED might inflict. In these cases the location of the PED in relation to the antenna and other factors were key. However in the known cases its been a “planets in alignment” situation that has been hard to replicate.

Anecdotally, as a professsional pilot, I have forgotten to turn off my cell phone many times while flying. Countless times I have been below 1000 feet on my way into land and my cellphone is buzzing with waiting voice messages or more often that not an actual phone call. Not once have I observed the instruments experience interruptions. I have my suspicions since I have had instances where the VOR seems to “dance” on me even without a call or message waiting. But can I truly say it was the cell phone or a problem with the aircraft or is the ground based VOR transmitter not funtioning properly?

Ryanair, through a partnersip with OnAir, an Airbus and Sita joint venture, has announced that it will offer passengers the ability to use their cellphones for voice calls, messaging, internet and internet gaming services in-cabin on its aircraft by 2007. An antenna mounted on the ceiling of the aircraft will create a “Cell” inside the aircraft. The calls will then be bounced off a sattelite to ground based staitions. Ryanair has not released details on what times passengers will be allowed to use their cellphones through this system. Currently, above 10,000 feet is the industry accepted altitude when most PEDs are allowed to be used. Ryanair says that if the technology doesn’t work they will remove it.

The impetus behind banning cell phones aloft was to protect the ground based cellular networks from being disrupted by airborne use of cellphones. From my experience most cellphones stop working approximately 3000 feet above the ground. Cell phone makers now programm their phones to hibernate when it receives too many “cells’ at once.

While it seems the use of PEDs “down low” should still be banned until more study is completed, the argument against PEDs aloft may be more about money. This is expecially true if airlines are willing to trade wireless signals with their passengers inside the cabin high up in the air.

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