Monday, November 28, 2011

Blowing a Circuit Over Everybody's Expertise

I'll be the first to say that all those people who know about circuit boards and microprocessors are pretty darned clever. But don't let them wander too far from their field of expertise or they wind up making statements that make them sound, well...stupid


I'm referring to an item that ran in the Bits blog of The New York Times online on Sunday headlined, Flyers Must Turn Off Devices, But its Not Clear Why, in which the author, Nick Bilton, disses the safety hazards associated with the use of personal electronic devices on airplanes and cites as the expert, the association representing wireless device manufacturers. 


What fries me about the hew and cry that accompanies this issue each time it is brought up is that people smart enough to be downright boring at a dinner party explaining digital complexities can lift up their eyes from the screen of their iPad and see something like commercial aviation in such starkly simplistic terms. 


Bilton's story boots up with the argument that people routinely do not turn off their devices on airplanes and no planes have crashed. Therefore, no problem exists. There are two problems with that. The first, is that it is wrong. The history of the study of the effect of EMI on airplanes begins with a spectacular mid-air collision - over New York no less - in 1960. At that time it was thought that radio interference caused the pilots of a United DC-8 to believe their VOR receiver was not working, resulting in the plane being off course and colliding with a TWA Super Constellation. 


Since then there have been other accidents studied by the members of the RTCA committee which has been investigating the potential for gadgets to interfere with airplane systems. When I wrote about this for the Times in January of this year, one of the  members mentioned several accidents (some of them quite well known) in which EMI was considered a likely contributing factor. Electromagnetic interference, unlike bent metal or broken parts, leaves no trace. 


Still, there have been many reports of pilots experiencing problems in the cockpit that did not lead to disaster that were were tracked back to a passenger using an electronic device. You can read more about them here.


But the second and larger problem with the story is that it is another rallying cry for air travelers who don't get that aviation accidents aren't an A-follows-B sort of thing, like plugging a fork into a wall outlet and watching the fireworks begin.  Absent a plane-spiraling-to-earth-event, everyone armed with a Google-equipped iPod (forgive me, Android) now feels that is perfectly appropriate to to make their own decision about whether to heed the flight attendant's plea to kindly power down anything with an ON/OFF switch.  A lack of accidents is not evidence of air safety and its frightening that passengers feel equipped to make safety decisions on their own with this yardstick as measuring device. 


Bilton brings his argument on home by quoting an executive of the International Association for Wireless Communications, a trade group representing the device manufacturers, hardly an unbiased source. The executive reassures Times readers that aircraft wiring is shielded. Well, yeah. We know that. He does not suggest the impact of 200-400 plus passengers, each with 2 to 3 devices all powered up and ready to go may be slightly beyond what any airplane designer may have had in mind a decade or more ago when the PED wasn't SOP for everyone over the age of 3. We're not even talking about the thousands of airplanes in service around the world that were designed prior to the 1990s. 


Anyway, I'm not feeling so good about the integrity of all that communications gear or even the robustness of the shielding of airplane wiring, which will always be one or two digital generations behind the device manufacturers. (I say this having spent five years on an F.A.A. committee on aging aircraft wiring. See me later.)


So when I get on an airplane and I am mildly tempted to keep my Kindle on, or squeeze a few more photos on my digital camera, I resist that temptation. To steel my spine I need only remember the what Boeing had to say about the matter. 


"Operators of commercial airplanes have reported numerous cases of portable electronic devices affecting airplane systems during flight. These devices, including laptop and palmtop computers, audio players/recorders, electronic games, cell phones, compact-disc players, electronic toys, and laser pointers, have been suspected of causing such anomalous events as autopilot disconnects, erratic flight deck indications, airplanes turning off course, and uncommanded turns. Boeing has recommended that devices suspected of causing these anomalies be turned off during critical stages of flight."

Digital blogger or Boeing guidance? For me, it's not a tough call.
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