NPR Story
1:25 pm
Tue May 6, 2014

FAA: Data From Old Spy Plane Caused Computer Issue

Originally published on Tue May 6, 2014 3:48 pm

The primary air traffic control system around Los Angeles shut down last week because data from the a U-2 spy plane’s flight plan confused software that helps track and route aircraft around the region, the Federal Aviation Administration said Monday.

When the system failed Wednesday, a backup helped safely guide flights already in the air, but hundreds of planes across the nation headed for Southern California were ordered not to take off as an air traffic control facility about 40 miles north of Los Angeles effectively rebooted.

The problem had nothing to do with spy-related signals sent by the Cold War-era plane.

The plane flies at around 60,000 feet under “visual flight rules.” According to the FAA, a computer perceived a conflict between the altitude and the use of visual flight rules, and began trying to route the plane to 10,000 feet. The number of adjustments that would need to be made to routes of other planes throughout the area overwhelmed the software.

Bart Jansen covers transportation for USA Today and joins Here & Now’s Robin Young with details.

Guest

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Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

The FAA says the air traffic control problems in Los Angeles last week - 50 cancellations and over 400 delays - were because of a U2 spy plane that basically confused the agency's computers. U2 spy planes. How many of you went straight to Wikipedia to look up the Cold War era 1960 headline: American U2 Plane Shot Down Over The Soviet Union, Pilot Gary Powers Held?

Well, Bart Jansen covers transportation for USA Today. And, Bart, I'm sure many people thought that the Pentagon was phasing these planes out because we have unmanned drones and phone surveillance. So how many of these are still around?

BART JANSEN: There's about 30 of this type of plane around, and they are in the midst of phasing them out. I understand it's just a few more years yet, so that they'll be replaced by drones. As you say, they don't require the crews, and so not as much risk to people if you fly drones instead of these aging planes.

YOUNG: Right. Well, they evoke so much history. By the way, the pilot, Gary Powers who was shot down, he was eventually brought home, in an exchange with the Soviet Union.

But how did this U2 spy plane confuse the FAA computers? We know the computers are being upgraded across the country. But what happened?

JANSEN: Yeah, the computers are fairly old, date to the '60s, just like the plane. And so they're - they've been in the midst of upgrading them for a decade. And the problem is, is that they need to keep using them to keep planes in the air while they are upgrading. And so, one expert compared it to, like, trying to change a flat tire while you're still driving on the highway. So, as they are upgrading to this new system, the U2 submitted a flight plan that basically - they tend to fly twice as high as regular airliners.

But the flight plan computer interpreted it as flying way down, right in the midst of commercial airliners. And so the computer tried to figure out: Wait, wait, how do I keep it away from all these other planes? It sort of got overwhelmed as it tried to run its memory. And the technical workers were telling me it's just like your laptop that just - it overwhelmed itself and it just kept, like, trying to reboot.

YOUNG: Well, so, again, to be clear, it didn't get close to any commercial planes. It flies much higher. But do we have - did we know, did the controllers know it was a U2, one of ours? Or do they have questions about that? And what was it doing over L.A.?

JANSEN: Well, I think U2s can occasionally fly over populated areas. They - I think they fly occasionally out of Edwards Air Force Base, which is nearby. But it did not come near any commercial airliners. I don't know if the controllers in that regional office knew that it was a U2. What, you know, they were seeing immediately was: Oh, the computers are getting overwhelmed. We need to get this over with.

But they were able to sort out the computers within an hour. So it actually was more a nuisance than a real danger.

YOUNG: Yeah.

JANSEN: But that's why they're upgrading the computers to try to prevent this kind of problem in the future.

YOUNG: Bart Jansen, he covers transportation for USA Today. Thanks so much.

JANSEN: Thank you.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

And, Robin, speaking of more of a nuisance than a real danger, I was on a flight yesterday. As it was coming in for a landing, it starts banking away and takes off again, because there was a plane on the runway that we were supposed to be landing at.

YOUNG: At least you weren't being spied on by a U2.

HOBSON: Exactly, perhaps so. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.