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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

6 Answers 6

up vote 18 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
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

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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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 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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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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