Spy Plane from Cold War Era Glitches Air Traffic Control System

A Cold War-era spy plane caused massive problems at LAX recently when it delayed numerous flights due to issues with air traffic control. The U-2 Dragon Lady aircraft entered itself into airspace which the traffic control center of Los Angeles was monitoring, and somehow caused a glitch in the system wherein inaccurate readings result in a meltdown. This crash, caused by the unassuming spy plane, resulted in somewhere around five hundred flight delays.

The Federal Aviation Association has been reassuring people that the crash was a one-time event and not a flaw in the overall system. Apparently, despite the actual altitude of the aircraft, the crash was due to the En Route Automation Modernization system reading the spy plane at a much lower height, which forced it to attempt routing the flight plan around numerous other aircraft in the area. Of course, this glitch does seem to raise some other questions concerning what might have happened if the reading had been accurate.

The issue does not seem to lie with the Automation Modernization system’s actual programming, but rather with its technical specifications. With only so much available memory on the system’s hard drive, it was not able to process such a complicated route for the spy plane. While not many specifics on the issue have been made public, spokes officials claim that the issue has been fully resolved and is not predicted to repeat itself in the near future, The Register reports.

Outside of the implications that the ERAM system may need some boosts in terms of technical abilities, the incident has not garnered much attention from the FAA. The biggest question is why the altitude of the spy plane could have been misread by tens of thousands of feet. This is especially baffling because the reading should not have been unexpected; the U-2 was expected to be flying in the airspace, and had been on schedule for its training mission for some time.

The spy plane itself has been in operation for over fifty years, and is still used for training missions with some relative frequency. Due to its age and condition, it may not last for much longer, but for now it remains an important part of history as well as its training applications. Its recent debacle has also helped bring to light some software issues with the ERAM system, issues which the spy plane has shown may not be solved, even if the FAA appears to believe otherwise.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE