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The Convoluted Tale of a US Spy Plane and an FAA Ground Stop

May 6, 2014 at 6:32 PM | by | ()

When last we left off, the FAA had just gotten over imposing a ground stop on four Southern California airports - LAX, Burbank, Ontario, and John Wayne - because of unnamed "technical issues." Or maybe it was because of mysterious "computer issues." Or maybe because of "the system" that managed the airspace for a particular air traffic control center. The agency wasn't exactly being helpful or clear on why they decided to ground, delay, or divert hundreds of flights. That frustrated at least one local outlet to the point where they kind of snarked that the FAA was sending journalists to functionally useless websites.

We'll remind you that a ground stop is a big deal. It's not just that planes get frozen on the runway at whatever airport gets slapped with the stop. It's that any plane anywhere in the country bound for the ground-stopped airport also gets grounded. These things cascade very, very quickly.

By Friday an NBC News reporter had figured out what really happened. It turns out that a U-2 spy plane - these are 50 year old relics still used by the Pentagon on a range of missions - had entered the airspace managed by the Palmdale FAA facility. The U-2 was flying at 60,000 ft, which is twice as high as commercial flights go. The FAA's super modern flight tracking system misread the altitude by about 50,000 feet and frantically started trying to make sure the plane didn't collide with other airplanes. Then the FAA's super modern flight tracking system crashed.

An agency statement was a little more precise, conveying that "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." But really it just fucking crashed.

There are a number of questions people are asking. The conspiracy theory sites are on fire, of course, about domestic surveillance. That's silly. The government has much better ways to spy on you, and - if you happen to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist - you should know that they're probably using many of those ways right now. The flight was likely a training exercise.

The real scandal is that the FAA's air traffic control system - which has thus far cost $40 bilion to modernize - uses a component called the En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM). The Wall Street Journal describes ERAM as "the backbone of the nationwide traffic-control upgrade." This, of course, is the thing that crashed. So money well spent.

[Photo: newsfixstation / YouTube]

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