Taking a GPS onto an airplane

I’m going to be flying in the near future and I was wondering about this. How well would a GPS work if you took it on an airplane? Would you be able to get a good signal? And if so, would you actually be able to see the landscape below racing by on the screen? Would it give you an accurate speed?

Yes, it’ll work. I have a Garmin 276C, and have had it aboard commercial aircraft several times. I have to hold it near the window to get adequate reception, but it works. Tells you altitude and speed (and location). The screen on mine only updates a couple of times per second, so although the terrain does whip by, it’s kinda jerky; yours may/may not be better.

The altitude screws up your visual perspective more than you’d expect. I look on the GPS screen and see a small rural town 10 miles off to the side, and when I look out the window and see it, it looks like it’s almost right below us.

Some advice here about issues with using a consumer GPS unit on a commercial aircraft. Summary: it’s safe, and many airlines don’t have a problem with it. But if a flight crew member tells you to put it away - even if you know the airline policy approves of its use - do as you’re told, or you’ll end up on the evening news.

Odd, I have a Garmin Nuvi250w, and the last time I was on a plane, in a window seat, I could not get a signal after at least 10 minutes, so I gave up and turned it off, as I knew I would be using it once I got on the ground.

Alternatively, if you have internet access (as more and more planes are offering WiFi), you can view your location and plane’s status at this website. Example.

I’ve done it, basically what Joe Frickin Friday said with a Garmin 3x or something like that. Once I could not get a lock however.

I have also used my Garmin nuvi several times. I have to hold it near the window but it has always worked. You have to adjust the scale appropriately to see something that makes sense.

I’ve never been asked to put it away. How you handle it depends on whether you are of the “ask permission” or “beg forgiveness” school. :wink:

Yeah, I’ve got a nuvi as well and it works fine in a window seat (I haven’t tried it away from the window). The speed reading seemed to work too, maxing at about 550mph if I remember right.

I’ve tried it with a Garmin GPS Maps 50 with no luck. And with my BB Storm and Garmin software. No go on either of them. But I usually have an aisle seat.

Several years ago I asked the pilot if my (genaral aviation) GPS would be OK.
He looked into the “big binder of rules” as said it was OK. Even since then I just use it.

I’ve even have had flight attendants ask me where we are / how fast we are going , etc.

Since mine is an aviation GPS, I can tell the VOR we are flying from / to.


Ive done this before. I put it up against the window and it worked on one flight but not on another. Reception is pretty iffy even when it works. I have the cheap Magellan model.

My old Garmin eTrex worked fine on a Southwest flight from Long Island to Tampa.

Oh, my yes! My Garmin Nuvi worked wonderfully during my trip to South Africa. It helped kill the time to watch the continents pass, and see what we were flying over.

I can also impress people by showing them the summary page, and showing that the fastest I’ve ever driven my car is 627 miles per hour :slight_smile:

I have tried it with my TomTom 920 with no sucess at all, but I didn’t try holding it up against the window.

According to FAQ page on the site mentioned, "The data displayed on FlightAware.com is typically five minutes delayed from real time. You can contact us if you have a commercial need for real-time data. " Also, "Depending on the data source, updates are usually one to four times a minute. For transoceanic flights, it may be every couple hours while over water. " I infer the latter comment is because of security concerns.

I use a Garmin 60CSX. After a flight I input the tracking data into my laptop.

The five-minute delay is due to security. For oceanic flights, however, the long delay is because ATC doesn’t know the real-time position of the aircraft either. Those flights are out of radar coverage, and their positions are only updated when either the pilot or the automated datalink system on the aircraft makes a position report over a designated reporting point, which are usually spaced around 45 min or so apart.

GPS needs line of sight. As in, you cannot have obstacles between the device and the satellites it’s reading the signal from. Obstacles include trees, concrete, car roof and airplane body. Which is why GPS antennas are mounted on the car roof, or standalone devices are mounted on the windshield.

This means, unless you’re sitting at a window, and unless your plane is oriented that there is line of sight to atleast 3 satellites in your half of the sky, you wont get a position lock. But considering the altitude of the plane, you have a good chance of finding 3 satellites - as attested by some of the posts above.


PS: For the curious:

Most cell phones and modern GPS devices use various tricks to get around the fact that in most real life situations you will not get 30 second uninterrupted line of sight with atleast 3 satellites - which is required for GPS to work as designed.

Techniques include:

  1. accelerometers and similar inertial navigation systems - that can track your movement since the last known good satellite lock, this is usually error prone, but gets corrected when the next satellite lock happens. Works well enough in real life. This requires atleast one position lock after being switched on

  2. Triangulation using cell phone towers, which can be accurate upto half a mile radius, not great but sufficient in a lot of situations. This works wherever there is a cellphone signal including inside cars and buildings.

I used similar flight trackers to watch as my children flew (unaccompanied) across the pacific. I am still low-tech enough to find this very, very cool. But it was a bit addictive and I was obsessive during their 26 hour flights- spent a lot of time staring at blank screens waiting for take offs. :slight_smile: