Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Cell Phone To The Rescue

In the air or on the ground, it could save your life

cell phoneI 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.
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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.

cell phoneA 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 for more information and pricing details. Also, see "Tech Talk: Spot Satellite Personal Tracker."


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