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Hands Free

Even the most advanced technology available today still seems to be at the mercy of the telephone.

I was flitting around the Kent countryside over the weekend, listening to other pilots complaining that the French air traffic controllers weren’t responding to their calls. “Calais and Le Touquet aren’t answering the phone either” replied the controller. This can be a little awkward, as the channel airspace becomes rather crowded on a Saturday afternoon and after all, the strike was supposed to have finished the day before but perhaps nobody told the French, who were quite possibly on a long lunch?

When I landed back on the little farm strip, coincidentally owned by a friend from Unisys, I found a Police officer, a single Constable tasked with defending Kent from the airborne threats of terrorism and drugs, waiting for me.

“Expecting any flights from Ireland today”, he asked? “Not that I know of”, I said.

“Been anywhere interesting?”

“Just Sangatte to smuggle-in more refugees and cigarettes!”.

“Some people have all the fun” was his reply.

The irony of seeing the Policeman was reflected by an earlier experience, two weeks before, when an aircraft had called ‘Mayday’ with an engine failure and subsequently made a forced landing on the isolated strip. When I arrived, I found the pilot was on the phone, trying to call Kent Police, to announce that he and his aircraft were in one piece and to cancel the emergency. It came as no surprise that the Police weren’t answering the phone, with anything but a recorded message and when I left, he was still trying to get through.

Of course, the trick about using the telephone in an emergency is having the luck to find someone at the other end. If it’s my wife or mother-in-law, there’s little or no chance of rescue, as their cell phones never appear to be switched on or if they are, then they are engaged. But in general, mobile phones have proved themselves time and again and again as lifesavers.

Last year, I was making an approach to a busy airport, when my aircraft radio suddenly failed. I fiddled with the connections as best I could, which left me able to receive but not transmit. Worrying about the circling group of much larger aircraft that lay ahead of me, I had a flash of inspiration, grabbed my mobile phone and speed-dialed the number of a friend at the local flying club, adjacent to the airport. Bellowing down the phone, because I couldn’t hear him over the engine noise, I gave him my position and call-sign and a few minutes later, was relieved to hear the approach controller, calling me on the radio, with instructions to guide me through the traffic to a safe landing.

But mobile phones quite probably cost more lives than they save.

Last month, a friend was on the called his wife from the car, to tell her he would be home for dinner soon. He never finished the conversation. Misjudging a bend in the road, he drove head-on into a tree and was killed instantly.

He was the second person I’ve known of to become a mobile phone statistic. The first, an IT Director, drove his BMW into a bridge support on the M1. Hands-free communications should, I believe, be a strict rule for both cars and aircraft and even motorbikes but with the arrival of a new generation of multi-functional, colour capable mobile phones, just around the corner, together with the distraction of wireless devices like my GPRS Blackberry which constantly receive email, man’s best friend, his car, is becoming a more dangerous place than ever before.

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