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Could your cell phone really cause a plane crash??

“We’re flying in a Lockheed Eagle series L1011. It came off the line 20 months ago. It carries a Sim-5 Transponder tracking system. Are you telling me I can still flummox this thing with something I bought at Radio Shack?” – Toby Ziegler, West Wing

We’ve all heard the pre-landing announcement asking that we turn off electronic devices, and most of us have thought it sounded ridiculous (each time reminded me of the above rant from the West Wing pilot episode). But a new airline industry report says perhaps there’s a possibility there’s something  to it. Yes, seriously.

The International Air Transport Association studied survey responses from 125 airlines from 2003 to 2009 and found … “75 incidents of possible electronic interference that airline pilots and other crew members believed were linked to mobile phones and other electronic devices.” Twenty-six of them, a tad more than a third, “affected the flight controls, including the autopilot, autothrust and landing gear.” Another 17 hit navigation systems, with 15 affecting communication systems. It’s all according to an industry investigation shared by ABC News. The iphone just got that much more dangerous.

Scariest quotes from the report:

  • “Autopilot disengaged by itself”
  • “left GPS is not reading correctly”
  • “rapid changes in cabin altitude and altitude control”

Note – the report stresses that it is not verifying that the incidents were caused by cell phones, but it includes a sampling of the narratives provided by pilots and crewmembers who believed they were experiencing electronic interference.

I’m still skeptical, and so is ABC’s John Nance, a former Air Force and commercial pilot:

“There is a lot of anecdotal evidence out there, but it’s not evidence at all. It’s pilots, like myself, who thought they saw something but they couldn’t pin it to anything in particular. And those stories are not rampant enough, considering 32,000 flights a day over the U.S., to be convincing.”

Also, Boeing and Honeywell Aviation just released a statement about the March’11 report about Wi-Fi interference: Phase 3 Display Units used by pilots in Boeing 737 aircraft are susceptible to “blanking” in the presence of Wi-Fi equipment. Scary!

photo - plane crash
Can using your Iphone really cause THIS??

How serious is the wifi interference issue?  Alaska Airlines distributed iPads to its pilots to replace paper flight manuals, but they’re not permitting its pilots to use their new iPads to access the Internet in the cockpit after witnessing the Wi-Fi interference with Honeywell Phase 3 display units (also it’s an FAA rule). OK, but that’s still not cause for fear. The media’s big on scare tactics to get your attention but it sounds like it’s an issue with one specific module, and only at elevated power levels (not typical power levels).

Boeing, meanwhile, says: “Current testing by Boeing and Honeywell has determined that blanking may occur when a DU is subjected to testing procedures specified by the FAA requirements (AC-20-164) during installations of Wi-Fi systems on the airplane. Based on testing that has been conducted, Boeing and Honeywell have concluded that actual EMI levels experienced during normal operation of typical passenger Wi-Fi systems would not cause any blanking of the Phase 3 DU. This issue does not exist with the Phase 1 or 2 DU’s.”
Honeywell says that, during recent ground testing “at elevated power levels”, the company observed a momentary blanking on the ‘flat panel’ liquid crystal displays that it developed and pioneered for Boeing.
“The screens reappeared well within Boeing’s specified recovery time frame. The screens have not blanked in flight and are not a safety of flight issue. Honeywell is working to ensure the problem is addressed and fixed and that our technology will continue to exceed specifications,” says Honeywell.

http://www.flightglobal.com/articles/2011/03/10/354179/wi-fi-interference-with-honeywell-avionics-prompts-boeing.html

Link to ABC’s story, and the earlier ZDnet story on wifi causing interference and potentially a plane crash is here, with the FlightGlobal (aviation blog) here.

Here’s the West Wing episode that I referenced at the top:
FLIGHT ATTENDANT 2
[approaches Toby] Sir, I need you to turn off your computer.

FLIGHT ATTENDANT 2
I need you to turn off your laptop, sir. It interferes with our navigational
systems.

TOBY
You know when you guys say that, it sounds ridiculous to most people, right?

FLIGHT ATTENDANT 3
Mr. Ziegler? A message was just patched up to the cockpit for you. I'm not sure
I've got it right. POTUS in a bicycle accident?

TOBY
[stops typing and looks up] You got it right. [reaches for his cell phone]

FLIGHT ATTENDANT 2
You can't use your phone until we land, sir.

TOBY
We're flying in a Lockheed eagle series L-1011. It came off the line 20
months ago and carries a Sim-5 Transponder tracking system. Are you telling me I can still
flummox this thing with something I bought at Radio Shack?

Here’s the link to the full transcript from that West Wing episode (pilot episode, aired Sept ’99). It was the best show on television and we miss it!

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