Did a U-2 Spyplane Trigger a Software Glitch that froze Los Angeles Air Traffic Control computers?

May 03 2014 - 13 Comments

A U-2 Dragon Lady flying at very high altitude may be the cause of a service disruption at Los Angeles Air Control Center that caused delays and cancellations across the U.S. But, aren’t these aircraft flying daily around there?

According to NBC News, on Apr. 30, a U-2 flying through the airspace monitored by Los Angeles Air Control Center in Palmdale, California, triggered a software glitch that froze the Center which handles air traffic at major airports including Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas.

“The U-2 was flying at 60,000 feet, but the computers were attempting to keep it from colliding with planes that were actually miles beneath it. Though the exact technical causes are not known, the spy plane’s altitude and route apparently overloaded a computer system called ERAM, which generates display data for air-traffic controllers. Back-up computer systems also failed,” says the NBC’s Andrew Blankstein.

Even if the article speculates the flight may have originated from Edwards Air Force Base, that is located 30 miles north of the L.A. Center and has hosted U-2s in the past, the spyplane was probably operating out of Beale Air Force Base, home of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, north of Sacramento, which is equipped with last U.S. Air Force’s Dragon Lady jets.

Anyway, it’s worth noticing that the U-2 has been flying above FL600 for more than 50 years. Other past and current aircraft, including the RQ-4 Global Hawk (also based at Beale), are known to fly above 60,000 feet over Southern California. For this reason it seems at least weird that a U-2 transponder triggered the problem only on Apr. 30.

What if it was another kind of plane? Something relatively new as those mystery planes spotted in Kansas and Texas?

Actually the possibility the outage was due to a software glitch independent from the type of plane or even a cyber attack can’t be ruled out.

As a side note, the maximum altitude transmitted by a U-2 transponder is FL600: even if the aircraft is flying well above it, the Dragon Lady’s mode C will show no higher than 60,000 feet.

Image credit: Lockheed Martin


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  • Tommy


    Did a U-2 Spyplane Trigger a Software Glitch that froze Los Angeles Air Traffic Control computers?

    Public answer = YES

    Confidential Answer (need to know basis only) = No. It was a hack attack.


    • Mikey

      Real Answer: It was a software bug in the command parsing code.

    • flonazhebaungh

      oh dear

    • OG_Locc

      I’m as far from a tinfoil hat type as humanly possible – but it’s very reasonable to suspect this was the result of a cyber attack.

      Aircraft are flying in that area at 60,000 feet *constantly*. Claiming it was because of a U-2 sounds pretty corny to me.

      • GiantSharkie

        And which non-U2 aircraft are capable of flying at 60,000 feet? Oh I know, it was the Space Shuttle.

        • OG_Locc

          Well, the U-2 would be one of the aircraft that operates in the area constantly. The Avenger test articles fly out of El Mirage, and Edwards operates Global Hawks.

        • cencio4

          Global Hawks operate out of Beale AFB as well.

  • FoilHatWearer

    Sounds like the work of an EA-6B to me.

  • Kimberly Holloway

    Muwaaahaaaa haaa haaa! My Air Force peeps rock!

  • I’m A Ninja

    have to have some way of explaining how the missing Malaysian plane sneaks through our airspace loaded up with a Russian-jacketed American nuke, bound for whatever city they’re sacrificing for more power to the feds.

  • Controller

    It wasn’t the U2’s transponder. It was a computer entry at the facility that caused the software crash. Mikey’s reply to Tommy below is close enough to correct. Source: I work at LA Center.

  • PDQ
  • James Hubbs

    What about the Russian bomber that flew off of California’s coast, could that bpmber hold jamming or EMP capabilities ?