Apple iPhone suspected of interfering with airline equipment in 2011 incident

Posted:
in iPhone edited January 2014
As the debate over use of portable electronics during takeoff and landing of commercial flights rages on, details of a 2011 incident suggest that an iPhone may have caused interference with the flight equipment on a regional airliner.

The compasses on the flight were behaving abnormally, sending the plane several miles off-course, according to a report published Wednesday by Bloomberg. But the systems apparently returned to normal after a flight attendant had a passenger in row 9 turn off their iPhone.

airplane


An unidentified co-pilot who spoke to NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System suggested it was likely the iPhone caused interference with the plane's systems, as the timing of the phone being turned off coincided with when the navigational issues were resolved.

The incident is one of dozens of episodes where airline pilots, mechanics or other personnel believe that passenger electronics may have interfered with airplane systems. However, some major carriers such as Delta still support the relaxing of rules on use of personal electronics under 10,000 feet, noting that there is no way of verifying with certainty that those devices are actually the cause of any interference.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been leaning toward relaxing its current rules, which prohibit the use of most electronic devices ? including Apple's iPhone, iPad and iPods ? while the plane is under 10,000 feet. But proposed rule changes by the FAA have been held up by technicalities, and the desire to develop a concise, future-proof set of regulations.

The FAA has found itself under considerable pressure to relax the rules that require passengers to power down their devices prior to takeoffs and landings. It hopes to announce a rule change by the end of the year.

Apple's iOS devices include an "airplane mode" feature that turns off all of the wireless radios inside the hardware. But the term "airplane mode" can mean different things across different devices, making it more difficult for the FAA to adopt a standard that can apply to a range of devices.

Modern wireless interference are believed to be associated mostly with cellular radios. That's why airlines that use the iPad as an electronic flight bag do not use cellular-capable versions of Apple's touchscreen tablet.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 80
    gtrgtr Posts: 3,231member
    And let's not forget Apple's assassination of JFK.

    Unforgivable!
  • Reply 2 of 80
    focherfocher Posts: 640member
    Why do most articles discussing the topic of electronic devices on airplanes combine two very different things - devices with radios and devices without or disabled. I'm not aware of any serious discussion of allowing the use of wireless radios on personal devices during flights (despite that the current wifi / cellular Internet systems use the same technology) so I'm not sure what this situation - even if true - has to do with allowing the use of devices during take off and landing.
  • Reply 3 of 80
    MacProMacPro Posts: 18,215member
    gtr wrote: »
    And let's not forget Apple's assassination of JFK.

    Unforgivable!

    That made my day! :)
  • Reply 4 of 80
    kdarlingkdarling Posts: 1,640member


    I've researched the cases of PED (Portable Electronic Device) interference reported in ASRS.


     


    There have been everything from GSM buzz in the pilots' headphones interfering with hearing air traffic controllers, to navigation instruments acting up, to autopilots disengaging mysteriously near landing... all until some passenger turned off their device.


     


    Recently Boeing engineers discovered, while testing a WiFi system, that some personal devices kept ramping up their signal and would cause the pilot's electronic displays to blank out.  They had to beef up shielding on those displays.  Imagine if that had happened in flight.


     


    Probably the worst instances are when the TCAS collision avoidance system issued a bogus "descend!" command while flying low in the terminal area.  Fortunately the pilots ignored that command. (These false TCAS alerts make it appear as if another plane is right on its tail.)


     


    --


     


     


    Because interference is rare, and seems to depend on the device and where the passenger is in relation to wiring, it's difficult to prove anything after the flight is over.


     


    Fortunately, so far there's been no deadly accidents attributed to PEDs, and so the FAA seems to be okay with not worrying the public.  (Similar to the way they refused to require fire extinguishers in the cargo hold for years, hoping that the odds were in their favor.) 


     


    Someday we'll have planes that are perfectly shielded and/or use fiber optics for everything, but we're not quite there yet. 


     


    --


     


    That said, it's the lithium batteries that worry me nowadays.  There are ASRS reports of baggage catching fire while being loaded.   If that happened in mid-air, it could be disastrous.


     


    (To those who do not know.  ASRS allows pilots to submit confidential incident reports without fear of reprisal.  This has allowed NASA to collect a lot of info that would otherwise never be known about.)

  • Reply 5 of 80
    Why is there a question? Either devices do or don't cause the problems. Why is testimony needed? Why are there suggestions that maybe, it was likely, that the iphone caused instruments to misbehave.

    The solution is simple. Controlled experiments. It's called science. Either iphones can cause problems or they can't.
  • Reply 6 of 80
    jimdreamworxjimdreamworx Posts: 1,064member


    Articles like this just make me glad I don't fly anymore.


     


    If the hyperbole is true that an airplane can be rendered uncontrollable with a cellphone, that is truly bad engineering on the part of the manufacturer.


     


    But it can't be proven.  If it could, the class action suits would be flying (pun not intended.)

  • Reply 7 of 80
    ilovestuffilovestuff Posts: 143member


    My neighbor's house caught fire while I was brushing my teeth, when I put my tooth brush down, the fire department showed up. Coincidence?

  • Reply 8 of 80
    damn_its_hotdamn_its_hot Posts: 1,185member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by GTR View Post



    And let's not forget Apple's assassination of JFK.



    Unforgivable!


     


     


    I heard a rumor that Oswald used an early (very early) prototype… NAHW!

  • Reply 9 of 80
    normmnormm Posts: 567member
    Why is there a question? Either devices do or don't cause the problems. Why is testimony needed? Why are there suggestions that maybe, it was likely, that the iphone caused instruments to misbehave.

    The solution is simple. Controlled experiments. It's called science. Either iphones can cause problems or they can't.

    Exactly. This kind of anecdotal evidence is worthless. How could a distant iPhone even interfere with a compass??? Perhaps it gave the pilot cancer while it was at it? Let the scientists and engineers figure out what's true, and then make the rules.
  • Reply 10 of 80
    wigginwiggin Posts: 2,265member
    "'no way of verifying with certainty"

    Hm, when lives are on the line, I don't need certainty. Caution is in order. If you can't stand to be without your connectivity for a few minutes, then take the train. If there was a way to easily verify that a device might be on but that all of it's radios are off, then sure let people use them. But until that's an option (which it's not because many people, in general, are too stupid or lazy to actually bother) then turn 'em off.
  • Reply 11 of 80
    plagenplagen Posts: 151member


    What's up with Bloombers vs Apple war? Is it some kind of (not to well) hidden agenda? When was the last time they published anything Apple-positive?

  • Reply 12 of 80
    gazoobeegazoobee Posts: 3,754member


    On the face of it, this claim is impossible.  We don't know the details of course, but an aircraft's compass is typically of the "bowl" variety and uses solid bar magnets.  The only thing that could affect it would be a very strong electromagnetic field or the presence of other bar magnets (very) nearby.  


     


    It's also worrying how a co-pilot "... suggested it was likely the iPhone caused interference with the plane's systems, as the timing of the phone being turned off coincided with when the navigational issues were resolved."  


     


    Whomever this person is, they certainly don't understand science, causality, statistics etc. I didn't think co-pilots were that dumb.  


     


    It's almost (literally!) more likely that a UFO happened to pass by the window at the same time.  

  • Reply 13 of 80
    Terrorists can think about using it
  • Reply 14 of 80
    steven n.steven n. Posts: 1,115member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by NormM View Post





    Exactly. This kind of anecdotal evidence is worthless. How could a distant iPhone even interfere with a compass??? Perhaps it gave the pilot cancer while it was at it? Let the scientists and engineers figure out what's true, and then make the rules.


    The kick is the variability in testing.  For example:


     


    http://reviews.cnet.com/2719-6602_7-291-2.html


     


    Each of these phones has a different level and, not only that, different frequencies.  Aircraft are tested under specific flight conditions and any issues are known and pretty darn well understood under those specific conditions. Likewise, behavior on the ground can be markedly different than at 30,000 feet (for example radiation flux is much higher and EMI levels are higher at high altitude and also depend heavily on latitude) so system level ground testing is not always an option.


     


    It is easy to say "Just test it" when you don't understand the parameters that need tested. What cell phones do you use? What mix of cell phone models, LTE, HSPA? HSPA+, 2G and/or 3G frequency bands do you test against?


     


    And yes, I do this specific system and software interaction/debugging for a living.  I take all my electronic equipment to either OFF or Airplane Mode when I fly.

  • Reply 15 of 80


    IDK about the iPhones but I know for certain that whenever I plug my Macbook into its power adapter, enough RF interference is generated that I lose my (over-the-air broadcast) TV reception.  Very annoying.

  • Reply 16 of 80
    steven n.steven n. Posts: 1,115member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Gazoobee View Post


    On the face of it, this claim is impossible.  We don't know the details of course, but an aircraft's compass is typically of the "bowl" variety and uses solid bar magnets.  The only thing that could affect it would be a very strong electromagnetic field or the presence of other bar magnets nearby.  


     


    It's also worrying how a co-pilot "... suggested it was likely the iPhone caused interference with the plane's systems, as the timing of the phone being turned off coincided with when the navigational issues were resolved."  


     


    Whomever this person is, they certainly don't understand science, causality, statistics etc. I didn't think co-pilots were that dumb.  


     


    It's almost (literally!) more likely that a UFO happened to pass by the window at the same time.  



    That was true 40 years ago. Compass position and output to the flight system is now output digitally and the electronics and communications could be susceptible to interference.

  • Reply 17 of 80
    To me, it seems like it should be simple. Figure out however many radios there are, figure out how many different types of planes there are, test each plane with each radio. It'll take time of course. Also, don't worry about future proofing the regulations until after the whole country knows whether or not they can use their devices. They're showing how slow they're departments really are.
  • Reply 18 of 80
    mstonemstone Posts: 11,510member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by waldobushman View Post



    The solution is simple. Controlled experiments. It's called science. Either iphones can cause problems or they can't.


    Actually, there is no funding for the necessary experiments. Only some passengers are convinced that there is no correlation to personal electronics and air safety, and they are not willing to pay for the investigation. Personally, I would disapprove of using tax revenue to fund the study. Take off and landing are the most dangerous parts of air travel so any additional precautions taken during those times seems reasonable to me.

  • Reply 19 of 80
    I worked on navigational equipment for many years in the military both on the ground and inflight and also in a war zone. Is it possible there is interference. Yes? But given my experiences with pilots I have to say it is also possible that many of these cases have other more probable explanations.

    We used to run all kinds of systems on many different frequencies without these kinds of problems. Another just as possible solution is piss poor maintenance of the airline equipment. Given that you don't even need electronic theory to work on this equipment I would put my money on that one. :-)
  • Reply 20 of 80
    ddawson100ddawson100 Posts: 452member

    Quote:

    Originally Posted by KDarling View Post


    I've researched the cases of PED (Portable Electronic Device) interference reported in ASRS.


     


    There have been everything from GSM buzz in the pilots' headphones interfering with hearing air traffic controllers, to navigation instruments acting up, to autopilots disengaging mysteriously near landing... all until some passenger turned off their device.


    ...



     


    Really interesting info. (Thanks for adding to the conversation rather than just giving a reaction!)  Is this because consumer devices and plane communication share frequencies? Seems to me that they should be silo'd but maybe there are historical reasons that this is much stickier than I'm imagining it could be if we started from scratch. PEDs use so many freq bands and even under the best of circumstances things might interfere. Damaged devices (or deliberately modified) could cause additional complications. Scary stuff.


     


    Now returning to the normal tone of this forum. Bah! It wasn't the iPhone. It was the Samsung components inside that caused it. Checkmate Samsung! :)


     


    Edit: a few more very interesting comments. I appreciate the science!

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