Saturday, July 5, 2008

Spot the airfield: Lombadina

On a Qantas flight from Brisbane to Singapore, right as our flight was about to leave the Australian continent, I spotted the Lombadina airstrip (YLBD) in the Dampier Peninsula.

Between the airstrip and the beach is the Lombadina Aboriginal community. According to the Lonely Planet guide, this community has a church built from mangrove wood. The local Aboriginals are the Bardi people.

In the larger picture below, the airstrip is the red line in the bottom-right corner. Lombadina used to be a simple red dirt strip and was upgraded to a sealed runway in 1998, at a cost of $800,000. Another airstrip can be seen near the leftmost piece of land, it is Cape Leveque (YCLQ), close to the Kooljaman wilderness camp.

Identifying the airstrip was made very easy by the use of the GPS functionality of my smartphone. OK, that's cheating, I know. I had a window seat, and putting the phone against the window was enough for the GPS receiver to pick up five satellites and give me a fix. And if you wonder, an altitude of 10821m means FL350. Computing the area QNH is left as an exercise for the reader :-)

I have to say I hesitated a bit before starting the GPS in-flight, being not really sure if it was allowed or not. So I had a look at the safety section of the Qantas in-flight magazine, which says pretty much the same as what can be found on their website:

Flight mode capable mobile phones and portable digital assistants (PDAs) may be used inflight provided the phone has been switched to flight mode before take-off. Flight mode enables you to operate the basic functions of your mobile phone or PDA while the transmitting function of your phone is switched off. You cannot make phone calls or send SMS whilst in flight mode.

My phone was obviously in "flight mode" and still allowed me to start the GPS, so I took that as an indication from the phone manufacturer that it was safe to operate the GPS in-flight. In addition, the GPS functionality is clearly not a "transmitting function" since it is only a receiver.

Writing this post I came across a list of airlines that explicitely allow the use of GPS receivers on board, and those who don't. Qantas is listed among the GPS-friendly airlines. The Web page makes an interesting point about GPS receivers generating less radiations than most portable devices, and certainly less than laptops whose users forget to turn Wifi or Bluetooth off. I even remember using Wifi Internet once in-flight on Singapore Airlines, before they shut down the service for commercial, not technical, reasons.

In related news, Qantas finished a trial phase for texting from mobile phones in-flight. Apparently everything went well, the avionics of the 767 used for the trial didn't suffer any disruption from the cell phone signals, and Qantas may start rolling out in-flight text messaging (during cruise only of course) as soon as the end of this year. Reading between the lines, it sounds like the set-up consists of a base station on the plane that uses a satellite link to connect to the telco wired backbone, similar to what was used to provide in-flight Internet access.

Sounds like the days of the extortionately-priced, credit-card-activated in-flight phone that one can find in the armrest are counted. In twenty years of flying airlines, I've only seen a passenger use this functionality once. But maybe that's because almost all of my flying as a passenger is done in economy class.

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