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Air Traffic Controller Lands Stricken Plane By SMS 177

Posted by timothy
from the r-u-here-yet-lol dept.
There's a new reason to hope that the no-cell-chatter bill now under consideration in the US doesn't bring with it a Faraday-cage mandate, and that reason is landing safely. Reader ma11achy writes with an excerpt from a scary story (with an SMS-based happy ending) from the Irish Times: "Five people on a flight from Kerry to Jersey received mobile phone text instructions from a quick-thinking air traffic controller when he guided them in to a safe landing at Cork, after the plane lost all onboard electrical power, communications and weather radar soon after take-off from Kerry airport."
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Air Traffic Controller Lands Stricken Plane By SMS

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  • Oh dear (Score:5, Funny)

    by i_liek_turtles (1110703) on Sunday August 10, 2008 @08:15AM (#24544625)
    Hay r u ok 2 land lol?
    • Re:Oh dear (Score:5, Funny)

      by FinchWorld (845331) on Sunday August 10, 2008 @08:32AM (#24544671) Homepage
      BRB, cnt talk, crshing.
    • by Kjella (173770)

      Have you seen their weather reports? They probably invented communicating that way and it took IM and SMS for the rest of the world to catch up.

      • by xaxa (988988)

        Have you seen their weather reports? They probably invented communicating that way and it took IM and SMS for the rest of the world to catch up.

        I take it you mean the Shipping Forecast [bbc.co.uk]. I don't know if Ireland has one, but the UK does. To be read out in a very British accent:

        And now the Shipping Forecast issued by the Met Office, on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, at 1130 on Sunday 10 August 2008.

        There are warnings of gales in Viking North Utsire South Utsire Forties Thames Dover Fastnet Shannon Bailey Faeroes and Southeast Iceland.

        The general synopsis at 0700: Low north Forties 989 moving north expected Viking 982 by 0700 tomorrow. L

        • by ColaMan (37550)

          You missed a bit off the end of that shipping forecast:

          "And an extra special good night to Stoker Cheeky Hoyle. {smooch} night night petal pants!"

          A cookie to my US brothers if they can source that quote without google.

        • by M0b1u5 (569472)

          Isn't this lyrics from an old Tears for Fears song?

          I believe I have the EP somewhere.

        • by RockDoctor (15477)

          The names are all regions of the sea/oceans around the British Isles. Living about as far inland as is possible in Britain, it's all irrelevant to me, but I could probably still name most of them, probably in order, just from hearing them on the radio.

          Me too, probably. But to my shame, here I am out somewhere "West of Shetland" (actually, the last land we saw was the Orkenys, but "whatever") and I don't actually know which sea area we're in. Checking the Met Office, we're near the border of Fair Isle and F

      • by zerkon (838861)
        Do you mean METAR/TAF?

        example: KLAX 131650Z 28005KT 6SM HZ FEW015 BKN180 21/16 A2984 RMK AO2 SLP104 T02110156

        At KLAX on the 13th day of the month at 1650 zulu time the winds were 5 knots from slightly north of due west (280 degrees). 6 Statue miles of visibility with haze. Clouds are few (ie 1/8 of the sky) at 1500 feet and broken (ie 6/8 of the sky) at 18000 feet. Temp is 21 deg C with a dewpoint of 16 deg C. Altimeter is 29.84 inches of Mercury. There is a remark that the station is automated and some
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Would've been cheaper.

    • by bondsbw (888959) on Sunday August 10, 2008 @08:33AM (#24544681)

      Why didn't he just call them?

      He did. FTA:

      Eventually he [the pilot] managed to contact Cork [the air traffic controller] on his phone, telling them about his problem and his intention to approach the airport from the sea.

      He then lost audio telephone contact but the air traffic controller switched to texting and told the pilot that he had a primary radar signal on the aircraft and that Cork would allow them to land there. He then used texts to guide the 30-year-old plane in.

    • by Guano_Jim (157555) on Sunday August 10, 2008 @08:35AM (#24544687)

      from TFA:

      He then lost audio telephone contact but the air traffic controller switched to texting and told the pilot that he had a primary radar signal on the aircraft and that Cork would allow them to land there. He then used texts to guide the 30-year-old plane in.

      What would make a phone lose audio but not SMS ability?

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Adreno (1320303)
        ... a moving vehicle - going in and out of range.
      • by BAKup (40339) on Sunday August 10, 2008 @08:41AM (#24544721)

        Because cellphone voice communications requires a constant link between the cellphone and the tower, where SMS is transmitted in bursts when the cellphone and the tower can hear each other.

        You'll find in situtations where the cell towers are jammed with calls of people calling each other to see if everything is OK after a major storm, a SMS will get through even if you can't make a call.

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Lupu (815408)
          True, you can continue texting when the tower is jammed with calls, but I doubt he got disconnected because of a rapid increase of simultaneous calls. A more plausible explanation would be that he exceeded the maximum range of some 30km from the tower. It would also make sense considering that he was supposedly approaching from sea.
          GSM uses time division multiplexing, which means that the "constant link between the cellphone and the tower" is infact a set of short and frequent bursts. A burst sent from a p
        • by jcr (53032)

          It also helps that SMS requires a miniscule fraction of the bandwidth that an audio connection does.

          -jcr

      • by jacquesm (154384)

        It's a good thing they didn't have KPN as their cell provider (dutch company, so obviously not a chance), because I regularly get messages hours after they've been sent even with both phones in range of a cell tower and no other connectivity issues that I'm aware of.

      • by Gordonjcp (186804) on Sunday August 10, 2008 @09:04AM (#24544807) Homepage

        What would make a phone lose audio but not SMS ability?

        Shite signal. An SMS is sent in a single frame of GSM data. Audio needs 50 frames per second.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by norova (1199601)

          An SMS is sent in a single frame of GSM data. Audio needs 50 frames per second.

          And again I'm reminded of why I'm so sick that we pay so much for SMS services.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by jalet (36114)

        Maybe the plane was in a tunnel at that time.

      • by mgblst (80109)

        What would make a phone lose audio but not SMS ability?

        If you can't think of the reason, then I would suggest that you are probably at the wrong site. Fox news is that way -->

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by arielCo (995647)
      from the article thingy:

      [The pilot] then lost audio telephone contact but the air traffic controller switched to texting and told the pilot that he had a primary radar signal on the aircraft and that Cork would allow them to land there. He then used texts to guide the 30-year-old plane in.

  • by consonant (896763) <shrikant.nNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Sunday August 10, 2008 @08:38AM (#24544705) Homepage

    ..what would be the point of this act? To reduce passenger annoyance? Great, might as well ban cellphones in cinema halls now.

    I think a more sensible legislation would be legalizing poking obnoxious cellphone loudmouths in the eye with pencils..

    • by elrous0 (869638) *
      I, for one, would support any pro-poking legislation.
    • by vertinox (846076)

      I think a more sensible legislation would be legalizing poking obnoxious cellphone loudmouths in the eye with pencils..

      Personally, I have found that its more annoying when other passengers try to strike up a conversation with me.

      Once I was flying during the summer by myself for business and I ended up sitting next to this really intoxicated lady in her late 50's. On retrospect it was kind of funny, but kept asking me personal questions and even offered me several thousand dollars if guessed her age right as

      • by consonant (896763)

        Personally, I have found that its more annoying when other passengers try to strike up a conversation with me.

        Amen to that. I wouldn't call myself reserved, a loner or even an introvert. But when I travel, I usually make it a point to carry along something to keep me occupied for the journey. Something constructive, like a book, or podcasts, or even a laptop, if I need to get work done.

        Co-passenger conversations are tolerable, and even fine if the discussion is more on a /.-ish line, like on news, issues

        • Amen to that. I wouldn't call myself reserved, a loner or even an introvert. But when I travel, I usually make it a point to carry along something to keep me occupied for the journey. Something constructive, like a book, or podcasts, or even a laptop, if I need to get work done.

          Put your ear buds on, slide one of these bad boys [aircraftspruce.com] over your head and you're golden.

          • by interiot (50685)

            Put your ear buds on, slide one of these bad boys over your head and you're golden.

            I was Google searching to see if a gas mask is even allowed on a plane (it wouldn't surprise me if they're classified as a weapon, since they could be used as one component in an attack), but lo and behold, this page [instructables.com] actually has a picture of a guy flying American Airlines with a gas mask on. So, go for it!

      • by H0D_G (894033)

        Sitting next to inquisitive passengers is the worst. I once was next to a 6 or 7 year old version- who proceeded to chatter whilst I was quite airsick and throwing up. Luckily, the flight attendant moved him, before I throttled him.

    • by ceoyoyo (59147) on Sunday August 10, 2008 @11:18AM (#24545755)

      You can be thrown out of a theatre for talking on your cell phone (or having it ring). Perhaps we should indeed have the same rule for airplanes.

  • Is it really a technical issue, or is it that airlines are lazy about protecting their electronics?

    I find it hard to believe that something as critical as the electronics system in an airplane would be so prone to cell calls.

    • by elrous0 (869638) * on Sunday August 10, 2008 @08:45AM (#24544735)
      The Mythbusters already exposed this as a load of crap.
      • by Tx (96709) on Sunday August 10, 2008 @09:11AM (#24544827) Journal

        The Mythbusters, while highly entertaining, would not win any prizes for designing good experiments. They are entertainers, not scientists, and you could poke huge holes in quite a high percentage of their endeavours, so I wouldn't cite them as a meaningful reference.

        • by elrous0 (869638) * on Sunday August 10, 2008 @09:17AM (#24544855)
          Since rhe airline industry and TSA have, to date, provided not a single study or even shread of evidence thar cells pose any threat, I'd give the Mythbusters the edge on this one.
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Alioth (221270)

            Cell phones, certainly GSM cell phones *DO* interfere with aircraft communication systems.

            It was a dark and stormy night (OK, it wasn't stormy, just light rain, with a cloud base at 600 feet, and it was very dark). I was returning from the UK with a friend in his light aircraft. It was my friend's first IFR approach for real - in the clouds, at night. The air was smooth though, so the conditions weren't too bad for a first time.

            Unfortuantely he had forgotten to turn off his phone.

            ATC cleared us for the appr

        • I was annoyed and disappointed in an episode where they were testing a story about the effects of a bad paint job (or some other thin substance...can't remember) on the rotor blades of helicopters. Two of the assistants (mitigating factor: one was the smokin' hot babe) decided to test it by doctoring the blades of a radio controlled helicopter. They went to a hobby store and bought one, then spent quite a bit of the alloted time trying to fly the thing. That's like testing a rumor about surfing by going

      • The mythbusters experiment was highly flawed. They used a single cellphone for all their tests.

        There's this effect called "heterodyning", where two signals mix to produce two more (sum and difference). When you have multiple cellphones going on, their signals will mix to produce all kinds of nasty products. If one of them happens to land on the VOR/glideslope frequency, things can very suddenly get interesting.

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      On the one hand the aluminum tube body of the typical modern aircraft is potentially an antenna which can deliver your cellphone signal at full strength (which isn't much, I'll grant you) directly into the cockpit electronics. On the other hand, the signal strength is jack diddly shit and your laptop backlight probably has at least as much chance to interfere with something, and the only time they make you stow that is on takeoff. It has nothing to do with the electronics, though; they just don't want stuff

      • by TheLink (130905)
        Maybe one phone in a metal plane doesn't do anything.

        But how about 300 phones? And what happens if all of them go to max power because they can't reach a cell? Or when the plane's micro cell goes down.

        Just putting an active GSM phone next to audio equipment makes it buzz. With such phones you can even tell that you are about to get a call just by the distinctive tatata-tatata-tatata-ta-ta sound from the interference.

        So I won't be confident on it not causing problems to avionics.

        Another thing - does using a
    • by Phroggy (441)

      My GSM cell phone causes audible noises whenever it's near powered computer speakers or poorly-shielded microphones, produces a weird flickering on my CRT monitor, and I've seen it cause erratic mouse behavior (contextual menus pop up when I'm not touching the mouse). I have no idea what it does to airplanes, but I have to move my phone away from my computer when I take a call, so it's not a load of crap.

  • by Spliffster (755587) on Sunday August 10, 2008 @08:40AM (#24544717) Homepage Journal

    My Brother flies an A320 for BA.

    They have constant contact via cell phone to their dispatchers. Even tho they require flight passengers to shut down theirs.

    Once the shit hits the fan, I guess it would be the first they use to contact Ground for any vectors, weather infromation or whatsoever.

    -S

  • Someone is going to say that complete communication failure is too rare to worry about, and they will be right and wrong.

    While the situation described shouldn't effect new communication rules, there are many different ways cell phone communications can be useful. Furthermore, the ability to communicate using cell phones is a deterrent to hijackings. The person in charge of the plane is not certainly in charge of all communications, and thats a good thing.
    • by 1u3hr (530656)
      l. Furthermore, the ability to communicate using cell phones is a deterrent to hijackings.

      It didn't "deter" the 9/11 hijackings, did it? It probably was the reason the passengers rushed the cabin and crashed Flight 93 though.

    • by yabos (719499)
      It's fairly common in older small planes due to the old wiring and older equipment. Even new light sport aircraft can cost upwards of $100K to buy so many people buy these older airplanes.
  • by 1u3hr (530656) on Sunday August 10, 2008 @09:01AM (#24544795)
    Timothy (The "editor") wrote "There's a new reason to hope that the no-cell-chatter bill now under consideration in the US doesn't bring with it a Faraday-cage mandate, and that reason is landing safely."

    How about reading TFA: "the twin-engined Piper plane ... with four passengers". It wasn't a fucking jumbo jet. That kind of plane is never going to be affected by any "no cell chatter" rules, much less have any "Faraday cage" built into it. And I think an airliner would have multiple multiple communications backups.

    Reminds me of the wackos who say cell phones should be allowed in cinemas "in case of terrorist attack".

    The only reason Timothy linked this with the cell phone ban on passenger planes is that it is guaranteed to start up a multi-page thread arguing that subject again, reardless of its irrelevance. Too bad he couldn't think of a way to get gun rights or evolution into the story too.

    • by pecosdave (536896)

      Reminds me of the wackos who say cell phones should be allowed in cinemas

      I've never been in one that doesn't allow them in. They just ask you to silence the damn thing, during the previews, often with some very creative short films. I still usually hear at least one.

      • by 1u3hr (530656)
        I've never been in one that doesn't allow them in

        I should have said "allowed to use".

    • "Reminds me of the wackos who say cell phones should be allowed in cinemas "in case of terrorist attack"."

      They've got a point though - cell phones are an excellent way of setting bombs off remotely, how else are you going to mount a terrorist attack if they're banned in cine.....oh.....hang on... Ah, I get your point now...
  • There's a new reason to hope that the no-cell-chatter bill now under consideration in the US doesn't bring with it a Faraday-cage mandate, and that reason is landing safely.

    I hope this law never gets passed and I don't care what lie the gov't has to tell to keep cell phones turned off. Planes are already noisy. People who talk on cell phones talk LOUDLY. Add a lot of people in a noisy environment all talking at the same time, and that makes for a lot of noise.
  • Non-Story (Score:5, Informative)

    by tweak13 (1171627) on Sunday August 10, 2008 @09:33AM (#24544949)
    So a 4 passenger light aircraft landed with no electric power. Big whoop. Electrical failure on an aircraft like that means the radios go out, you lose a couple instruments, and that's it. Most of the important instruments for maneuvering are either powered by the pitot static system or an engine driven vacuum pump. Speaking of the engines, their ignition systems are powered by a fully redundant engine driven system and don't require any external electric power.

    If the pilot wouldn't have had the cell phone, he would have been given signals from a light gun as he approached the airport. Losing radios isn't exactly all that uncommon, especially in older aircraft, so pilots and controllers have come up with ways to handle the situation.
    • by samkass (174571)

      Even the title sounds pretty silly to a pilot. Air traffic controllers didn't land the plane-- the pilot did. It MIGHT have been a story if the guy was flying through dense clouds and fog and lost control just as another radar contact was intersecting his vector at high speed or something.

  • Sheesh! Air controllers don't land planes, stricken or otherwise. Aircrews land airplanes. The airplane will land (and fly) just fine without an "air controller".

    Air traffic controllers _clear_ airplanes to land. This involves traffic de-confliction and statistically improves safety but there are plenty of non-towered airports where the aircrew routinely lands without benefit of Air Traffic Control.

    For instance: http://flightaware.com/live/airport/KPUW [flightaware.com]
    At Pullman/Moscow Regional Airport, a non-towered fi

  • by mhteas (34268) <malcolm@t[ ]ozulu.biz ['ang' in gap]> on Sunday August 10, 2008 @10:23AM (#24545295) Homepage

    The controller doesn't land the plane. The controller works with pilots to keep the airspace and runway coordinated and air traffic moving smoothly. That's an essential job, but it doesn't include flying.

    After all, there's no way (in a short time) to MacGyver a cell phone SMS to an autopilot. And this plane may not have an autopilot anyhow.

    The pilot followed standard lost contact procedures and augmented them with the call to the controller. The controller wisely used SMS when voice was lost.

    Anyhow, the article writer's hook for large commercial aircraft is nonsensical since this is a four-seat aircraft and wouldn't fall under those rules anyhow.

  • by whizbang77045 (1342005) on Sunday August 10, 2008 @11:16AM (#24545747)

    First off, when an aircraft is in an emergency, you can do a lot of things that would otherwise be banned. You save your fanny first, then worry about regulations later.

    Second, the reasons given for the cell phone ban appear to be largely misinformed. I know of two: potential interferrence with aircraft equipment, and interferrence with ground cell phone towers.

    To demonstrate that cell phones categorically do not interfere with aircraft equipment, in the US, the FAA would require that each cell phone design demonstrate that it does not cause interferrence. Change the design, or have a different design? New demonstration required. Cell phones passing the test would more than likely need some sort of identifying mark showing that they were approved for aircraft use.

    Don't like this idea? Perhaps you'd like to fly with someone who can interfere with the aircraft instruments. I can imagine the headlines: "FAA fails to insure airline safety. Cell phone determined to be cause of crash claiming 150 lives!"

    As much as I dislike the airlines getting a free ride on their phones being the only ones usable on the aircraft, those phones have been verified not to interfere with other equipment on the aircraft.

    The other problem is that ground based cell phones were designed for ground usage. They punch into whatever cell phone towers happen to be in range. As long as the cell phone itself isn't at a higher elevation, it only reaches a limited number of towers. Put it in an airplane, and it reaches a much larger number of towers. Which tower should be handling the call? Who knows?

    This might not be too bad for one or two cell phones, but open it up to all cell phones, and significant interference could result.

    It is possible to design a cell phone for airborne use. All it takes is money.

    One can, of course, legislate this problem, and declare whatever the legislators think will please the electorate the most. But that, of course, does not change the laws of physics.

  • OK, let me weigh these options. On one hand, there is the one-in-ten-million risk that someday I might need to have a cellphone conversation with ATC to talk me down when my entire panel fails. On the other hand, there is the virtual certainty that I will be sitting next to some compulsive-talking boiler-room operator on every commercial flight from now until eternity. Which to choose, which to choose . . .
  • SMS does get through when voice can't. Especially since analog AMPS service was discontinued.

    Last month I was using SMS to communicate with a friend who was spending a week horse camping in San Mateo County. This isn't exactly Outer Nowhere, but there's a big area of hilly parks west of Silicon Valley with no cell towers. She was camped in a valley, and I couldn't reach her with voice calls, but if I sent her a text message, it would be delivered the next time she rode up to a ridge line and briefly go

  • Misleading, a bit (Score:3, Informative)

    by Ancient_Hacker (751168) on Sunday August 10, 2008 @12:06PM (#24546097)

    There have been pretty good rules around for over 60 years regarding what the pilot should do when they can't contact the tower. Similarly the tower has an old red/green light gun for communicating with planes that can't hear.

    It's unlikely there was any safety added by the cell phone sms messages. In fact, bypassing the usual no-radio procedures may have compromised safety. There may be some flags dropped on this play.

  • People's lives in the hands of text messages. As if mobile telephones weren't annoying enough without butchering written languages as well.

    • by Alioth (221270)

      No one's life was in the hands of a text message. Airplanes fly on the principles set out by Bernoulli and Newton, *not* Marconi. A radio failure is something that's trained for, and the aircraft's captain was merely using an additional tool at his disposal; a radio failure should never be something that's life threatening.

      • by morari (1080535)

        Why would flight principals be based on macaroni? I like a good helping of cheese and noodles as much as the next guy, but I think you're taking it a bit too far.

  • As I was flying Nor'ward
    'tween Cork and Kerry airports
    I saw the dash go dim,
    and me passengers did scream out,
    "You better land this plane, man
    or the Devil, he may take ye"

    Whack fol my daddy-o,
    Whack fol my daddy-o,
    there's whisky in the jar

    I switch to my cell phone,
    for my cell phone never fail'd me.
    But, the Devil take that cell phone,
    for when I called the tower,
    that damn'd thing went and dropped me!

    If anyone can aid me,
    it's controller in the Tower.
    Send forth me text message
    and direct me

  • There are established procedures for landing with no radio. A light gun with red and green is used so that the tower can signal an aircraft when it is okay to enter final and land.

  • A private piston-powered aircraft has an electrical failure, and it's Slashdot-worthy news that the pilot managed to get a landing clearance on his cell phone?

    Must be a slow news day. This sort of thing happens fairly regularly in the US. Two friends of mine had the same thing happen to them a couple of years ago and managed to re-establish communications via cell phone. No big deal, and certainly not worthy of the front page on Slashdot, which is clearly trying to spin this as some sort of "OMG DONT BANZ T

  • Sellotape (Score:3, Funny)

    by turgid (580780) on Sunday August 10, 2008 @04:56PM (#24548857) Journal

    You have used two inches of Sellotape. Bless you, my child!

  • with an SMS-based happy ending

    And here I thought phone sex was a waste of time.

  • ..and everything, but, what's that sms'd exchange going to cost the hero? I have a rough over/under of 5,000..

I have not yet begun to byte!

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