We all seem to be loving our higher speed and better quality access to the world’s information, entertainment, social media, etc. 5G is the new era of cellular technology. Yet, at what cost are we demanding this new admission? There are reasons why we need to have our phones on “airplane mode” when we fly.
As a pilot, safety is always our first priority. We work in incredibly dynamic environments, function at our peak performance, and handle equipment that must be fully operational. When it comes to weather and flying complex jets, we rely on our instrument information to help guide our navigation. This allows us to control and manage the aircraft when we cannot physically see the environment we are flying in.
Radar altimeters act as a more finite reference as we get close to the ground. They are operational within 2500ft sending signals out that reflect off of the terrain, structures, and ground. One can think of it a bit like sonar. The radar altimeter sends out a signal. It is is then reflected off of the terrain and back to the equipment. It gives us information as to how many feet we are away.
5G C band service from cellular towers send signals in the 3.7GHz to 3.8GHz range. This is considered as the “A” block. Our radar altimeters are operating in the 4.2 to 4.4GHz range.
The FCC thinks that this is an adequate margin of cushion. There is a 400MHz spread between the two and the argument is that there in enough separation. The FAA operates from a place of safety. There has been interference and “overlap” between these two areas of signals that have affected aircraft. Any interference whatsoever is not even close to acceptable when it comes to aviation safety. In 2023, the FCC is planning to allow more cellular “G” technology in a “B” block frequency range of 3.8 to 3.98GHz which gives very little room for error. Other countries are saying that no flights have been affected. They are using less powerful 5G systems (operating in the 3.4GHz to 3.8GHz range), utilizing nearly half the power output of comparable U.S. systems, and are keeping them further away from airports. In some overseas countries, the 5G antennas are also tilted slightly away from being straight up vertical around airport areas. This helps keep the antenna signal beam away from any aircraft passing overhead.
Airports, airlines, manufacturers, and companies, have spent billions of dollars world-wide installing state of the art instrumentation in commercial aircraft. This gives us the technology to get you safely to and from your destinations in low visibility weather conditions without delays or cancellations. As pilots, we need to trust that information our equipment is telling us is completely accurate so that we can make solid decisions and safely fly the jets.
As of Jan 4th, we were told by the FAA that we were not allowed to rely on our radar altimeter information for instrument approaches to certain airport locations due to unknown effects of 5G antennas in the area of the approach paths. This decision was then postponed for two weeks. Now, we are in the throws of the battle with the cellular companies wanting to push forward their networks and the FAA asking for a two miles radius protection area around these approach paths. Our 5G here in America is stronger than that of various other countries.
For us as pilots, this affects multiple systems we use on a regular basis. Our flight management computers use the information to allow us to set up auto-landings we control and manage in order to land in low visibility at airports and runways that have this technology. Our auto-throttles we use for those conditions also use this altitude information close to the ground. Our ground proximity warning systems and terrain mapping use this information to tell us how close we are to terrain. We not only rely on this for low visibility conditions for landing, but we also use the information for things like night approaches over terrain, climbs over structures, count downs for distance to touchdown, etc.
When flying to destination airfields on the FAA’s “list”, we will need t0 adjust our way of thinking and will plan to take much more fuel if we know there is a possibility of having to divert to an alternate airport due to low visibility conditions. The entire system will be affected throughout the world as the jets, crews, and passengers end up somewhere that was not originally planned for. These diversions then have a ripple effect for the next flight of that aircraft since it will now be out of position. Crews and passengers will find themselves waiting at the gate for a replacement aircraft to be assigned. You can also imagine how this will wreak havoc on the air traffic controllers and airline flight system planning. The alternate airports to major airline hubs are also often not equipped to handle large influxes of of fully-loaded commercial aircraft.
The last thing that the airlines and passengers need to be facing right now is more delays and cancellations. We were starting to rebound from the affects of the pandemic and people have been feeling hopeful about their travel plans. A look back study was done about weather and airports that were affected just in 2019 alone. There were 345,000 flights and millions of passengers that would have been affected by this with delays, diversion, and cancellations.
Much more testing and an extensive multi- pronged approach will be required to come to specific conclusions in regard to this challenge. The military has already begun doing testing on some of their aircraft with 5G interference. In the meantime, we need to have 5G towers and signals stay as far away from aviation safety interference as possible.
To mitigate the affects to your flight plans, make sure that you fly on the best possible airline for your destination. It is worth it to pay a little bit more money for an airline with the safest flying records, a reputation of exceptional maintenance, well trained pilots and staff, and a solid reputation of good customer service. Sign up for text notifications so that if there are changes to your flight, you are notified as soon as possible. Keep an eye on the weather around the country. If it seems that your area of departure, connection, or arrival may be impacted during your planned time, you can be flexible and see about leaving a day or two early or, rebooking to a day or two later if it is not critical for you to be there immediately. If your flight is affected and you are already at the airport or if waiting on the aircraft on the ground (given the go ahead), call the airline right away (versus waiting in the customer service lines) to be have them rebook you.
Wishing you Blue Skies and Smooth Flights!