Can My Cell Phone Crash a Plane? Really?

cell phone airlplaneYesterday afternoon, sitting on an American Airlines airplane, I listened to the flight attendant command us to turn off all cell phones and portable electronic devices right before takeoff.  We have all heard and obeyed this command for years, believing that somehow our cell phones and ipods could somehow bring down a jet. 

But could my cell phone crash a plane?  Really?

As soon as we reached cruising altitude, I called the flight attendant over.  “Ma’m,” I asked, “Why must we turn off our portable electronic devices and cell phones during takeoff and landing?”  “Oh, that’s because they may interfere with the pilot’s navigation systems,” she said.  “Yeah, but, if that’s true, then why would you rely on the honor system, if something as important as a navigation system could be affected by my cell phone?”, I replied.  Now she got an annoyed look on her face and said impatiently, “Sir, it would take quite a few cell phones at the same time to disrupt our navigation systems, and we are dealing with adults.”  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  “But, ma’m, there are bad people out there; you can’t trust everybody to do the right thing.”  Now she was really annoyed.  “That’s all we need now; to collect all cell phones and electronic devices before takeoff and landing; I don’t think so!”  She gave me one last glare, and before I could respond, she walked away.

This is what is called “cognative dissonance”.  They tell us that our cell phones and electronic devices could, in theory, disrupt navigation systems and crash the plane, but then leave the enforcement of this rule up to “the honor system” because we are all “adults”.  Huh?

Allow me to make you feel better about flying the “friendly skies”.  The idea that your cell phone or portable electronic device could crash a plane is a myth.  But, like many myths, it has some truth embedded in it.  A plane’s navigation system could be affected by your cell phone or ipod, but it is shielded to prevent such a catastrophe.

Here is an exerpt from a study done by the television show, “Mythbusters“:

The reason that you can’t use your cellphone on an airplane is not because it will interfere with the in-flight instruments but because it forces you to use the in-flight phone on the back of your seat. An airplane’s cockpit is well-shielded against interference, but the FAA does not want to do the necessary testing to confirm this.

ABC News also studied this issue and concluded that: not a single air crash has been proven to be caused by the use of a cell phone onboard a plane.

John Nance, an ABC News consultant and veteran airline pilot, says there’s little reason to worry about cell phones interfering with an airplane’s navigational equipment. He says an airplane’s electronic systems are “all heavily shielded. That means that stray signals cannot get into those systems.”

the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration “have not done their job over about a 25-year period. And the airlines have quite properly said … if you’re not going to tell us, then we’re just going to default to the most conservative position and say we’re not going to use them in the air.”

Here’s the bottom line:  Your cell phone and ipod are not going to bring down a jet, I don’t care how many flight attendants say so.


11 Responses to Can My Cell Phone Crash a Plane? Really?

  1. Actually, I just flew to San Francisco two weeks ago and accidentally left my cell phone on. Evidently the plane did not crash, otherwise, I would not be living to tell about it.

  2. Echo_ohcE says:

    Your cell phone probably wouldn’t get a signal that far up in the air anyway.

  3. You sure can on takeoff and landing.

  4. danielbalc says:

    I once left my phone on for a whole flight.

    Wednesday night when leaving Dallas everything looked to be in order so I txted my brother that I should be on time (11:15). About 5 minutes after they had commanded us to turn off our cell phones they told us that we were stacked up and would probably be delayed about 20 minutes. AGHHHHHH!

    Being the good soldier that I am I resisted the urge to turn on my phone for a quick follow up message. As soon as I we landed and got the OK I text messaged my brother who was justifiably angry after having circled around for 20 minutes.

  5. Simon Gunson says:

    Ah well maybe you’re ignorant of Ansett New Zealand flight 703 in June 1995, in which a passenger made a complaint to the airline’s call centre as the aircraft was on a DME approach ?

    Pilots were distracted by an undercarriage fault and GPWS did not sound a warning until 4.5 seconds before impact at which time the captain witnessed the radio altimeter display lose 1000 feet in a split second.

    The call could not have been a hoax because the aircraft crashed on a fog shrouded hill and except for passengers inside the aircraft nobody else at the time would have known the details given in the call to the airline’s call centre about the undercarriage fault for several hours.

    This was the most persuasive link to cell phone interference. Police at the time were so intent on gaining a criminal conviction of the pilot they concealed evidence of the cell phone call from crash investigators.

    The truth is that phones in the range of 800-850 GHz can interfere in some situations. The Turkish Airlines 737 which crashed at Schipol in Feb 2009 had identical failures to it’s radio altimeter read out.

  6. If that were true, Simon, and our cell phones could really bring down the plane, it wouldn’t be left to the “honor system”. Either they are telling us the truth, when they say our cell phones are dangerous, in which case they are risking our lives to let us keep them, or they are not, in which case they are liars.

    Did you see “Mythbusters” debunk this idea that cell phones bring down planes?

  7. Simon has a point, and if there was interference, it’s hard to prove. Simply put, why be a moron and potentially put anyone at risk so you can jam your ipod or check your phone during takeoffs and landings. Play by the rules. Their are honor rules everywhere in society.

    And mythbusters is a tv show. It’s main objective is to entertain. The conditions under which something could happen are probably extremely rare, so I doubt mythbusters could truely prove that all the frequencies and all the take off and landing scenarios are possible.

  8. sasha says:

    I really don’t think our cell phones do anything to the airplanes. i think its just so that we 1 have to use the phones on the plane and 2 who wants to hear peoples ring tones the whole flight i know if i could i would be texting the whole time. i dont think everyone turns thier phones off when you go somewere and they say no cell phones what do you do? i put mine on vibrate of course. i was sceared to leave my phone on in a airplane but really doesnt matter i think.

  9. Mike says:

    Simon, whoever believes your story is an idiot. You’re telling me that the pilot, highly trained, didn’t see the ground? 4.5 seconds isn’t a lot of time. If you’re saying that they crashed because he relied on the alarm, you’re a moron.

    I’m sure they saw the ground coming up on them as they were about to crash. It’s a pretty hard thing to miss.

    • rndm007 says:

      No, you are an idiot. I guess you forgot the part about the fog? Unless you are a pilot none of you truly knows what it takes to be a pilot with people’s lives at stake. When a pilot is flying blind they rely on the instruments to be their eyes. It’s what allows them to fly through storms. So if the instrument that tells how high you are says your 1000 feet up but you are actually lower. A pilot wouldn’t have enough time to regain control.

  10. tur says:


    […]Can My Cell Phone Crash a Plane? Really? « Word to the Wise[…]…

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