Cell Phones In Practice

Cell phones are handy, but there are potential ‘gotchas‘ when using a cell phone to talk to Flight Service or Air Traffic Control that you should be aware of.

Fellow iPilot insider George Wilhelmsen wrote an excellent piece on the advantages of cell phone use around airports in an article from the early days of iPilot. (George also touched on some of the hazards and illegalities of using cell phones while airborne.) Cell phones are excellent for:

  • picking up instrument departure clearances from uncontrolled airports.
  • filing flight plans and attaining Flight Service weather briefings (more on that in a moment).
  • canceling or closing out flight plans after landing.
  • of course, they may also be your only source of communication on the ground as more and more pay phones are being pulled, victims of the proliferation of cell phones.

But there are potential traps in relying exclusively on cell phones while on the ground as well.

Real-World Experience
I subscribe to an on-line aviation discussion group where one member posted this message:

En route to Yellowstone from San Diego we made a stop in Cedar City. Prior to departing Cedar City, I called for a weather update using my cell phone. Evidently, because my cell phone number has a San Diego area code, the 1-800 call routed me to the San Diego FSS. This was confusing to the briefer who answered the call (since there is a facility at Cedar City!), but we sort of muddled through the briefing, and I was on my way.

Approaching Idaho Falls, I saw some interesting looking weather, so I called Flight Watch for an updated weather report. At the end of the conversation, the briefer casually asked me if I knew about the TFR along my route of flight. I had not been briefed on one, so he told me about the restricted area around VP Cheney’s ranch south of Jackson Hole. We were about 10 miles west of the TFR, and were not going to be really close, but a side excursion to get a closer look at the Tetons could have been more exciting than necessary. The briefer also suggested that there was some sort of airborne surveillance in the area (AWACS?). I assume that I was not briefed on the TFR because the San Diego briefer was not familiar with the area I was flying through, and didn’t recognize the importance.

That first posting elicited more, like this one:

It happened at two places I can recall off the top of my head. First was going into Stroudsburg, PA (N53) I got an 800 number from Allentown (ABE) approach (which would not work from an ‘out of area’ cell phone). The other was going into Lincoln Park, NJ (N07) I was given an 800 number for NY approach located in Long Island. Again, it didn’t work.

…this one:
Your cell may be automatically routed to the FSS facility your phone is from. Actually, on trips, I have had my phone work both ways; sometimes get Dallas/Fort Worth (the cell’s ‘home’ area); other times the (FSS) local (to the area from which the call was placed). The Airport Facilities Directory has local FSS numbers in it and you may want to take a look or carry it with you.

…and this:
I had a similar experience when flying back east (I’m based in Oakland, CA). I used my cell phone to call 1-800-WXBRIEF…and both I and the briefer quickly realized that, while I was asking for information on an IFR flight from Schenectady, NY to Newport, VT, he was sitting in Oakland and not the best source. He was kind enough to look up a number for Burlington (VT) flight service; I called them and got a locally-relevant briefing including information on smoke from forest fires in Quebec that was reducing visibility but not yet on official reports. Lesson learned: from now on I’ll either use a land-based phone or find a phone number for the local FSS, rather than calling the 800 number on the cell phone.

One respondent made a suggestion that may work:

I’ve had that happen to me also, but theoretically the call should be routed to the closest FSS. I now stay in the habit of shutting the phone off and turning it back on when I’m ready to make a call. This resets the site and seems to correct the problem.

But that, too, does not always do the trick. I usually turn off my cell phone before takeoff (to avoid distracting rings at inopportune phases of flight) and turn it back on after engine shutdown … and I’ve been routed to the cell phone’s ‘home FSS‘ more than once from a remote airfield, also.

Cell Phones and ATC
Advantage: Short of a Remote Communications Outlet (RCO, allowing radio communications with Air Traffic Control while on the ground at nontowered airports) or really flat terrain that permits ground-to-ground radio contact with nearby, towered airports (fly around Wichita, Kansas sometime!), there’s nothing better than a cell phone for picking up an instrument clearance with a Clearance Void Time from the run-up area.

Note for non-instrument rated or international pilots: A Clearance Void Time (CVT) is a time by which you must be airborne from a nontowered airport in order for your instrument clearance to be valid. CVTs are sometimes as little as five minutes from the time they’re given over the phone — meaning you may need to be ready to take off right away to avoid losing your instrument clearance.

Some pitfalls of cell phone use at the end of an instrument trip:

The other place this rears its ugly head is canceling IFR (telling ATC you’ve landed from an instrument flight plan at a nontowered airport, freeing up the airspace for others — and that you don’t need search-and-rescue service). I have had several occasions where the local cancellation procedures are to call approach control on an 800 number once on the ground and found that my ‘out of state’ cell phone with national roaming coverage cannot be connected to the 800 number from that location. The same 800 number works just fine from home — go figure. I have since learned to get the local phone number (for approach control at the destination airport) rather than the 800 number.

Dangers — regardless of whether you’re talking to Flight Service or ATC, make sure you truly communicate. One writer posed:

Cell phones have been identified as the root of some problems when getting a briefing, too. If the briefer can’t really hear you well, he can get your call sign wrong, copy parts of the flight plan incorrectly, etc. Often you can hear him/her quite well and that lulls you into a sense of confidence that they can hear you equally as well. Better to use a land line for the calls.

Working the Problem
Cell phone industry insiders report that they’re trying to address the problem of ‘local area‘ 800-number routing (fixing it so the call seems to come from the point where the call is made, not the ‘home area‘ of the individual cell phone), but that the solution is a thorny issue and is ‘at least a year‘ out.

Meanwhile, AOPA posts a list of toll-free Flight Service phone numbers (each location has one in addition to I-800-WX-BRIEF) at http://flighttraining.aopa.org/members/flight_bag/pdfs/fss.pdf, but that may not solve the ‘home area‘ problem, either.

BOTTOM LINE: Cell phones are great, but they have their foibles. When possible, talk to a local Flight Service Station and the correct ATC facility, and don’t risk a weak or garbled signal for these critical calls. Research local (non-toll free) phone numbers for the facilities you’ll use as part of your preflight planning, and use ‘land lines‘ instead of cell phones whenever possible.