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Data from U-2 spy plane caused havoc in L.A.: FAA

May 6, 2014, Los Angeles, Ca. - 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.


May 6, 2014
By The Associated Press

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.

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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.

 

"The extensive number of routings that would
have been required to deconflict the aircraft with lower-altitude
flights used a large amount of available memory and interrupted the
computer's other flight-processing functions," the FAA said in a
statement.

 

The Pentagon confirmed Monday that an Air Force
U-2 spy plane was conducting training operations in the area. It is not
unusual for a U-2 to operate in the region, and the necessary flight
plan had been submitted for the high-flying plane, Col. Steve Warren
said.

 

The connection between the U-2 and the outage was first reported by NBC News.

 

Since the incident, the FAA has been analyzing
what went wrong with its En Route Automation Modernization system.

 

The
computer system, known as ERAM, allows air traffic controllers at
several dozen "en route centres" around the country to identify and
direct planes at high altitudes.

 

The Los Angeles en route centre controls high
altitude air traffic over southern and central California, southern
Nevada, southwestern Utah and western Arizona — except airspace
designated for military use.

 

In its statement, the FAA said it has adjusted ERAM to require altitude details for flight plans.

 

"The FAA is confident these steps will prevent a
reoccurrence of this specific problem and other potential similar
issues going forward," the agency said.

 

When the system failed, air traffic controllers
in Southern California had to call their counterparts at
neighbouringcentres to update them on each plane's flight plan,
according to Nate Pair, the president for Los Angeles Center of the
National Air Traffic Controllers Association. While that was more
onerous than normal operations — when computers automatically pass along
updates — the system still worked, Pair said.