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Does anybody know if there is a GPS signal available on board of a plane with a common and normal GPS receiver?

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Also see Turning off GPS on a flight –  Ankur Banerjee Aug 11 '12 at 20:45

7 Answers 7

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Unfortunately the plane body does an excellent job of blocking GPS signal. In general if you're in a window seat you will be able to get a signal by holding the GPS near the window (or, for example, on a tray table) - but if you're elsewhere on the plane it's very unlikely you'll get a signal.

The exception to this may be the new Boeing 787, which is made primarily of Carbon-fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP). Not only does CFRP allow for larger windows (which would allow a greater visibility of the sky, and thus more GPS satellites), but it's likely that the GPS signal would pass through the aircraft shell better than on conventional planes.

Keep in mind that not all airlines allow passengers to use GPS receivers in flight (they are technically "radio receivers" which are often not allowed). Be sure to check with the specific airline and/or the flight crew to confirm that you are allowed use one.

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Do you know if the speed of the plane can disrupt the GPS receiver? –  Ricardo Giaviti Mar 13 '14 at 19:17
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I've seen my GPS report a speed of 1258km/hour when travelling with a ~300km/hour tailwind. The "airshow" display on the plane showed a speed 2 km/hour different, so the GPS was obviously extremely accurate even at that speed. (Yes, that's technically faster than the speed of sound - but due to the tailwind we were not technically going faster than sound relative to the air around us) –  Doc Mar 13 '14 at 21:07
    
@RicardoGiaviti: planes internal systems also use GPS. So do some missiles guidance systems. And these fly way faster than any plane. –  vartec yesterday
    
@vartec true, but they may well have higher speed processors and different sampling rates, enabling them to better handle those speeds. I could imagine a GPS system for hikers to get a bit confused when having to handle Mach range speeds, it may not even be able to display them. –  jwenting yesterday
    
Munitions restrictions in the US mean most consumer GPS would fail to operate if both alt>18000m and speed>515m/s. You shouldn't be near either limit in commercial aircraft. Hiking units use the same chipset as others and wouldn't be expected to have any problems at airline speeds. –  BowlOfRed 23 hours ago

Yes, but the signal can be a bit weak. It's best to hold it to the window to get a lock. Depending on the GPS device, some are able to "hold onto the lock" even if they are not facing the window, so you only need to have it by the window for the initial lock. You may or may not be allowed to have it in the GPS.

Here's my GPS while I was travelling near the equator. Look how I'm 4,500 m above sea level and travelling at 600 km/hr.

near the equator, 4.5 km up and moving at 600 km/hr

crimey was that 4 years ago... where does the time go...

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I am a (private) pilot, and have used my various GPS enabled devices for years both when I fly myself, as well as on commercial flights. (In the past, when they were not allowed, I applied for and obtained special permission from the airlines I was then flying.)

Depending on the seat location, and position of the GPS satelite constellation, my reception varies from mediocre to excellent. With a newer iPad, possibly containing a better chip or antenna, my capture rate for good position is generally over 90%, with the proviso that a window seat be selected.

Aircraft type seemed unimportant - until my most recent commercial flight. On the outbound leg, over 10 hours on a B777, I enjoyed superb capture and positional accuracy. The return leg was on a B787, and over the more than 10 hours of flight time I received not a single fix, even with the iPad up against the (large) window. Indeed, I wonder if the 787 has some kind of GPS jammer in the cabin, since the GPS signal actually occasionally showed 1 meter accuracy, but without an actual location, and then immediately dropped to "No Fix" - so it seemed that an extraneous signal might have been present.

BTW it is worth noting that a number of highly experienced pilots have recently landed at incorrect airports, with several such events well publicized. An iPad in the cockpit, running one of the readily available aviation programs, would have avoided such embarassing - and potentially dangerous - events.

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Yes, I did have GPS reception on my cellphone during a flight. However, it took quite a long time to get the initial coordinates, and I could not get updates on my location very often (the coordinates changed maybe once every 3-5 minutes). So I would say you would have bad reception in the best case.

Maybe dedicated GPS devices would have a better antenna & reception than my $300 phone.

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+1 This is correct and exactly the same as my experience. –  IKeelYou Aug 11 '12 at 4:37

I tested this once on a flight which claimed it was fine, once you'd taken off, and not during landing - to use devices like this.

I have an app on my phone (MyTracks) which is meant to track you when running, for example, but I just turned it on and left the phone running in my pocket. Not ideal for GPS, but I was in a window seat, giving it a slight chance.

Long story short, there were some data points recorded during the flight, and at a range of altitudes. It wasn't a steady connection, but it was certainly received intermittently, until the final 'please turn off all electronic devices' warning came and I had to stop the test.

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I have a Garmin Oregon 550 and I can confirm that one can get a decent signal if the reciever is positioned close to a window. Getting the initial fix might take a few minutes, however. For all the flights where I did not have a window seat, I lost the signal sooner or later and never got a fix again.

My experience is, that different airplanes actually do make a difference. I remember having excellent signal in a Boeing 747 Jumbo, while in Airbus A340 the GPS reciever would have to be close to the window all the time to prevent it from loosing the signal. I can also confirm from a recent flight that in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner there is absolutely no signal at all, not even close to the doors or emergency exit. I didn't expect this at all due to the plane being made of carbon fibre which normally transmits the GPS signal. I figure that at least the windows are (electrochromic) smart glass windows and they therfore don't transmit any GPS signal. So holding the GPS device close to the windows doesn't help in a 787.

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I have flown (as a pilot as well as a passenger) with a variety of GPS units (hand-held Garmins, iPhones, iPads), in a variety of aircraft, from my own single engine plane up to the largest commercial, with the portable GPS unit providing excellent position, speed and altitude information. Indeed, my iPad correlates superbly with my Garmin GNS 530, and serves as a backup for the (certified) Garmin unit.

Several mis-statements are common:

  • an iPad and iPhone can (and most do) contain a 'real' GPS unit. Some information can be obtained by triangulating cell phone towers, but cell reception can be turned off, or the unit can be in the middle of a cell-free zone (such as an ocean) and GPS service continues.
  • an iPad of iPhone, with the cell system configured to 'off', will not interfere with aviation electronics. In that configuration, the unit is in 'receiver mode' only. However, please do turn the cell phone portion of the unit off!
  • The fuselage of most commercial aircraft will allow sufficient penetration of the satellite-transmitted GPS signal to permit excellent accuracy. I have flown extensively while receiving good signals - in a large variety of aircraft, including regional jets, B737, B757, B777, MD80 etc etc.
  • I have only flown in a B787 twice - and in NEITHER CASE WAS I ABLE TO RECEIVE A USABLE GPS SIGNAL. I had a window seat both times, each flight was in excess of 10 hours, and at no point did I receive even a marginally usable signal. I presume the fuselage of the B787 contains denser EM shielding than the typical aluminum skinned airplane - probably related to lightning protection requirements for the nonmetallic structure.
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Hello, welcome. Do you need to shout? Also, I don't think you need to mention cellular receiver, while it is used on earth for positioning, it seems clear for this question that it is off-topic. –  Vince yesterday
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@Vince New users may not be familiar with the editor. The best thing to do in these circumstances is to simply fix the formatting of the post, and perhaps point them to the online help for same. –  Michael Hampton yesterday

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