Portable Electronic Devices

Sophisticated electronics as a means of problem solving. This same article was an AMT Online Exclusive in July 2011.


This is not a story about performance enhancing drugs nor is it about the newest animated character coming from the house of the mouse even though the topic contains names like Bluetooth and WiFi joined by a cast of celebrities including, iPod, iPad, and even iPaq. So just what is a PED and how does it impact life in our world?

The portable electronic device (PED) has evolved from a noteworthy event in 1948. Bell Laboratories publicly announced the creation of a gadget known as the “Transistor.” The intent was to enable amplification thus making bulky and fragile vacuum tubes obsolete. What followed in the next six years impacted how we listen to music and communicate through the airwaves. The “Transistor Radio” was arguably the first PED with a worldwide distribution. To those not “in tune” it was every bit as annoying in public as the modern cell phone.

Sophisticated electronics have become a reality for today’s aircraft technician. Even our tools have evolved. I find myself as dependent on the ability to connect a laptop to an aircraft as being able to figure out where best to plug in my multimeter. Understanding how to obtain and combine analog and digital information provides an effective means of solving difficult problems.

The use of a PED like most everything else found on an aircraft is regulated. In the United States, Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) 91.21 provides guidance and lists approved equipment. It stipulates: no person may operate any portable electronic device on a civil aircraft when operated by an air carrier or any time the aircraft is operated under instrument flight rules (IFR). There are certain exceptions which include: portable voice recorders, hearing aids, heart pacemakers, electric shavers along with any other portable electronic device that the operator of the aircraft has determined will not cause interference with the navigation or communication systems.

Incident and accident reports

Recent incident and accident reports have revealed flight crews using PEDs, including laptop computers and mobile telephones, for activities unrelated to the duties and responsibilities required for a flight. In one widely publicized instance, two airline pilots were using their laptop computers during cruise and lost situational awareness, leading to a 150-mile fly-by of the destination. In another case a pilot was texting after the aircraft pushed back from the gate and missed relevant ground control communications. During an FAA check ride a crewmember’s mobile phone was overheard ringing during the takeoff roll.

It is a pilot’s responsibility to guard against distractions on the flight deck. Technology continues to advance and provides our industry with new tools to assist crews in accomplishing their jobs. For instance, electronic flight bags (EFB) (both installed and portable) and high-speed data transfer units are two of the more recent and increasingly common devices available. For the traveling public, PEDs are an established fact of life particularly in the highly mobile air transportation industry. While PEDs can be valuable tools in aviation operations, crewmembers cannot permit the potential distractions and should continue focusing on duties and responsibilities related to the flight. Regulations regarding sterile flight decks prohibit crewmembers from participating in activities not related to the safe operation of the aircraft.

Flight departments should create a safety culture that clearly establishes guidance, expectations, and requirements to control cockpit distractions, including use of PEDs.

Stay connected

The ability to stay connected while flying has created numerous challenges for those of us involved in keeping the systems functioning. Information specialists find it challenging enough maintaining the data stream to a group of computers in an office environment. Couple these challenges to those found in modern high-speed aircraft and most information technicians throw up their hands as the traditional multi-conductor data cable is not an option in this environment.

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