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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