Air Traffic Control Systems Befuddled by Spy Plane

air traffic controlOn Monday, May 5, 2014, the FAA reported that an air-traffic control issue had occurred in Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center, located in Palmdale, California, the previous week. The agency tracks planes from parts of Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and across Southern California. It was caused by an old Cold War U2 spy plane, which befuddled air traffic control systems and left the aging operating computers of the agency confused and lagging in processing any other incoming information from other flights.

U2 spy planes were used over 50 years ago to fly high altitude espionage missions over Russia during the Cold War. Because the spy plane flies at a much greater altitude than ordinary commercial flights, it is thought that the electronics interpreted the flight path as a commercial plane and began to make adjustments for it at 10,000 feet, which is typical of such flights.

The spy plane’s flight path had befuddled the agency’s air traffic control systems with a large amount of data when it began to develop a new route for the plane and make room for other flights that were also flying at 10,000 feet. In order for the computers to prevent commercial airlines from hitting each other in mid-air, they need a certain amount of data from each plane in order to plan safe flight paths. Due to the volume of information the U2 was providing, they became overworked with the amount of data it required for them to calculate the risks involved. This was all a result of the plane flying much higher than the machines were allowing for.

No planes got close to one another but the issue with the systems inspired the cancellation of 50 flights in Los Angeles International Airport, 27 of which were arriving flights. LAX also suffered 212 delays as well as 27 reroutings to different airports as the agency raced to correct the error. The problem at Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center impacted airports and customers across the country, where delays were felt at such airports as Long Beach, Burbank and Orange County, as well as across the rest of the Southwestern United States.

Before the issues were dealt with, air traffic controllers had to manually call their colleagues working in neighboring airports in order to give updates on every planes flight plan. The agency managed to fix the befuddled air traffic control systems that had malfunctioned due to the spy planes misdiagnosis in about an hour. The system was adjusted to require specific altitude data for every flight path that is filed. They also added more memory to the machines in-flight processing ability in order for it to be able to process larger amounts of information and to hopefully prevent something like this from happening a second time.

The Federal Aviation Administration is confident that these implements will put an end to this particular type of event, and perhaps others like it, from happening again. However, the air traffic control systems that were befuddled by the spy plane are only part of the 20 computers across the nation that are responsible for tracking airplanes as they soar through the skies. The systems are being upgraded to modern technologies by the FAA; they are pouring $40 billion into a traffic control cutting-edge technology upgrade effort. As of now, however, the systems are continuing to operate on almost 55-year-old industrial science.

Opinion By Korrey Laderoute


The Wall Street Journal

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