I was doing my first solo out to the practice area north of the airport. I was doing some ground reference maneuvers and noticed that the GPS and NAV lights were on. I thought that was strange, then noticed the annunciator flash, “low fuel.” I knew the fuel tanks were full because I checked them during preflight. I immediately started looking for an emergency landing site. Suddenly, I noticed flames and smoke coming from the radio stack in the gap between the radios and ADF. The transponder was still on, so I tried to squawk 7600, but then the transponder failed too. I turned the avionics master switch off. I was going to land at a nontowered airport before I realized I had my cell phone in my bag…
That didn’t happen to me, but it did happen to a U.S. student pilot in May 2007. Those words are from the report he filed with the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS), and a cell phone helped him to resolve the situation safely.
Is It Legal?
General aviation pilots have used cell phones to talk to controllers, Flight Service Station (FSS) personnel and others during radio-impaired flights, including ones in instrument meteorological conditions. And think about this: If your aircraft radio ceases to function during a flight, then you can’t key the mic to turn on runway lights if you wish to land at a nontowered airport after dark. If you intend to land at a towered airport, then you won’t be able to tell them you’re on the way. If you need assistance from ATC to find an area of clear weather or warmer air while you’re flying in the clouds, then you won’t get help when your radio fails unless you use another device, such as a cell phone.
In an uncomplicated world, FAA regulation 14 CFR 91.21 would permit the use of electronic devices and cell phones aboard GA aircraft, even during IFR operations, if the pilot in command determines that the devices won’t interfere with aircraft NAV or COM systems. But a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulation, 47 CFR 22.925, prohibits the use of cell phones in airborne aircraft. The FCC has formally waived this rule for approved systems that don’t interfere with ground-based networks, but this waiver doesn’t include ordinary cell phones. An FAA advisory circular, AC 91-21.1B, discusses the use of portable electronic devices aboard aircraft; it notes that the FCC prohibits the use of cell phones while airborne and that the FAA supports this FCC restriction. The FCC rule applies to both private and commercial aircraft, and is intended to guard against the threat of interference to land-based cellular networks.
A cell phone usually communicates through the nearest cell site. The farther the signal travels, the weaker it becomes; its energy spreads out and is attenuated by terrain and obstacles, such as buildings, and is blocked by the curvature of the earth. As a result, the signal is normally too weak to cause interference at other, more distant cell sites, and the same frequency may be used by those other cell sites to carry other calls. But in a cell call made from an airborne aircraft, the signal could be strong enough to cause interference at multiple cell sites. Even though the airborne signal becomes weaker as its energy spreads out, it isn’t attenuated by terrain and obstacles or blocked by the curvature of the earth.
According to FCC spokesman Matt Nodine, however, the FCC isn’t aware of any enforcement action having been taken against pilots using cell phones in emergency situations during the past 30 years.
But you don’t want to leave your cell phone on as a matter of routine. In 2002, a TBM 700 pilot reported that the aircraft’s localizer and glideslope were unusable during an approach, although other pilots hadn’t reported a problem to the tower. After the Socata made a safe landing, it was discovered that both pilot and passenger cell phones were on. When the same ILS approach was tried by the same pilot later, with the cell phones off, there wasn’t a problem.
Help In The Air
A pilot who encountered an emergency situation in February 2003 described his use of a cell phone as “lifesaving.” While flying on an IFR flight plan in a Cessna 182, the pilot noticed the ammeter discharging. At the time, he was in cruise flight at 6,000 feet, in and out of cloud tops. The pilot couldn’t reestablish proper operation of the alternator, so he declared an emergency and was given vectors to an airport in Cleveland, Miss., and cleared to descend to 2,100 feet for a GPS instrument approach.
When the pilot’s windshield began to ice up at the lower altitude, he abandoned the approach and climbed back to 6,000 feet. He requested an approach into Little Rock and informed Memphis Center he would turn off all electrical equipment en route to conserve battery power. He used his cell phone to call the FSS 60 miles out, and the FSS gave him the direct number for Little Rock Approach Control. The controller informed the pilot he was 20 miles east of Pine Bluff and suggested he try an ILS approach there. While the controller was giving vectors over the phone, the pilot tried to turn the radio on and discovered he now had a complete electrical failure. The controller told him Pine Bluff was reporting 1,800-foot overcast and cleared him to descend to 1,800 feet. The pilot broke into the clear and was able to land safely after receiving a vector from the controller.
Help On The Ground
A cell phone also may be a valuable tool in case of an off-airport emergency landing or survivable crash. In February 2007, a Piper PA32 lost power and crashed nose-down against a tree in a wooded area of southeast Michigan. All four occupants survived the crash but were trapped inside the airplane. The pilot called 911 from his cell phone and was able to assist rescuers in locating the airplane.
In August 2008, a Grumman Goose amphibian airplane went down en route to a remote logging camp in British Columbia. The pilot and four of six passengers died in the crash; the plane’s emergency locator transmitter was destroyed. One of the two injured survivors crawled up a mountainside and made a call for help from his cell phone. He couldn’t make or receive voice calls after that, but he was able to continue communicating with rescuers through text messaging.
“It is good…to remind people that when a signal is too weak for voice communication, you may still be able to communicate by text,” a spokesman for the Transportation Safety Board of Canada later noted. Because of the thick forest canopy in the area where the Goose went down, it took rescuers six hours to locate the crash site from aircraft circling the area. But without the text messages, an official said, the search might have taken several days. The survivor on the mountainside sent a series of messages indicating whether a rescue aircraft was getting closer to or farther away from his location as the search progressed.
Experts recommend that if you need to use a cell phone for rescue in a remote area, you should hike to the highest ground and hold the phone away from your body or up in the air to minimize obstructions between you and a cell tower. If your phone has a very weak signal, the phone has to work harder (“shout louder”) to reach a tower, and that drains the battery more quickly. Turn the phone off between call attempts if a connection can’t be established after 10 to 20 minutes.
Cell phone service providers today use either GPS or network-based systems to comply with an FCC requirement that service providers assist 911 responders in determining a phone’s location in an emergency. If a network-based system is used, the service provider can locate the position of a cell phone that’s within its coverage area by triangulating the direction of signals, or “pings,” received by the phone from ground-based cell towers. GPS relies on satellites instead of ground-based equipment to locate a phone, and may work better in some remote areas.
Meanwhile, Back In The Practice Area…
Remember the student pilot with the smoking radio stack described in the first two paragraphs of this article? Who did he call?
“I called my flight instructor, who I had just dropped off before going to solo, and told her I had no COM, so she called the tower for me and called back to say I could come in to land and to look for light signals. On approach, I noticed the light signals and a fire truck near the runway. At this point, I realized all the electrical was out because the electric flaps weren’t working either. I landed and taxied back to the parking area.”
Apparently, the onboard fire was no longer an issue. But the student returned to a towered airport with a landing clearance and a fire truck on standby, thanks to the use of his cell phone. This was safer for him, and potentially safer for pilots who may have been in the pattern at the nearby nontowered airport as well, given the student pilot’s stressful situation and lack of radio communication.
Personal locator beacons are great rescue aids on the ground. A handheld aviation transceiver can provide additional radio capability in the air. But your everyday cell phone can be a terrific backup communication resource in many situations, both in flight and on the ground.
|A number of headset manufacturers, such as David Clark, Lightspeed and Sennheiser, now build inputs for cell phones into their headsets. This may assist in ground communications, such as the filing of an IFR flight plan from the ramp, as well as during airborne emergencies. There are also specialized devices, such as “SPOT,” that allow others to track your flight path (above) and provide more signaling options. Go to www.findmespot.com for more information and pricing details. Also, see "Tech Talk: Spot Satellite Personal Tracker."|