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Danger: Cell Phones and Fueling?

We have covered a lot of ground on the fueling of airplanes lately, but you can imagine our surprise when we heard a new risk to fueling aircraft. That risk allegedly comes from that ubiquitous communication device of the 90's, the cell phone. It seems that someone wants us to think that these little boxes, designed to allow us to communicate between each other whenever we want to, from wherever we happen to be, can really put some excitement into fueling your aircraft or any other vehicle.

We have covered a lot of ground on the fueling of airplanes lately, but you can imagine our surprise when we heard a new risk to fueling aircraft. That risk allegedly comes from that ubiquitous communication device of the 90's, the cell phone. It seems that someone wants us to think that these little boxes, designed to allow us to communicate between each other whenever we want to, from wherever we happen to be, can really put some excitement into fueling your aircraft or any other vehicle.

RING ... RING ... KABLAMMO!
Er, no. The whole thing is just an urban myth. Several people have run this one down, and have yet to be able to confirm any of the stories that indicate that a ringing cell phone caused the fuel to burst into flames. Shell Oil, who was reported to have sent out a memo detailing this issue, has stated that no such memo has ever been sent.

BUT DON'T BE FUELISH
Still, we are working with AvGas, so a measure of caution is needed. DON'T DROP YOUR CEL PHONE INTO YOUR FUEL TANK, OR THE FUEL TRUCK'S TANK. While it only has a 12-volt battery (and to be honest, the voltage depends on the model), dropping a battery connected to an electronic device into fuel can cause it to go BOOM! Other than that, you can look at the various links on the Internet on this subject, including the links at http://www.pei.org/static/, which has several stories that debunk this myth. (Warning: The links on that site are rich in pop-ups, so if you don't like unsolicited ads, just read the header that dismisses the risk.)

THE FACTS:

  • Fact 1: The RF energy from cell phones is real, but is NOT like a microwave oven, which causes sparking of metal when it is placed inside.
  • Fact 2: The ring tones of cell phones are electronically generated, and don't take the 100 volts required by old bell-style ringers that were on landline phones.
  • Fact 3: There are NO documented cases of cell phones causing fires while fueling vehicles. (There are several cases where this is inferred, but not proven.)

ON THE OTHER HAND
There have been some cases cited where getting in and out of your car while fueling has caused static electricity and sparks that resulted in fuel fires. While it seems improbable, I know I have static charges in my car because it zaps me every time I get out of it. I don't seem to have the same problem with the leather seats in the airplane, but just to play it safe, get out of the plane prior to fueling and make sure you neutralize your static charge by touching the airframe WELL AWAY FROM THE TANKS. The tail or the side of the fuel truck (if properly connected to your airplane) would work fine.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Fueling safety is important. It is also important to know when an issue is real, and when it is not. Following safe aircraft and automobile fueling practices will keep your investment in those expensive items safe and sound, and will keep you in on piece, too.

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