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U-2 Caused Widespread Shutdown of US Flights Out of LAX 128

Posted by timothy
from the that-bono-is-such-a-ham dept.
Hugh Pickens DOT Com (2995471) writes "Reuters reports that last week's computer glitch at a California air traffic control center that led officials to halt takeoffs at Los Angeles International Airport was caused by a U-2 spy plane still in use by the US military, passing through air space monitored by the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center that appears to have overloaded ERAM, a computer system at the center. According to NBC News, computers at the center began operations to prevent the U-2 from colliding with other aircraft, even though the U-2 was flying at an altitude of 60,000 feet and other airplanes passing through the region's air space were miles below. FAA technical specialists resolved the specific issue that triggered the problem on Wednesday, and the FAA has put in place mitigation measures as engineers complete development of software changes," said the agency in a statement. "The FAA will fully analyze the event to resolve any underlying issues that contributed to the incident and prevent a reoccurrence." The U.S. Air Force is still flying U-2s, but plans to retire them within the next few years. The U-2 was slated for retirement in 2006 in favor of the unmanned Global Hawk Block 30 system, before the Air Force pulled an about-face two years ago and declared the Global Hawk too expensive and insufficient for the needs of combatant commanders."
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U-2 Caused Widespread Shutdown of US Flights Out of LAX

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 04, 2014 @08:36AM (#46912295)

    The U-2 has been flying for over 50 years. It is not like this sort of scenario (high flying spy plane entering airport airspace) is a new concept. How could something this simple have been overlooked, especially since the U-2 has been flying for so long?

    • by rossdee (243626) on Sunday May 04, 2014 @08:44AM (#46912337)

      I remember hearing an anecdote about the SR71 Blackbird
      A Blackbird is entering commercial airspace over CA
      Pilot requests Flight level 70 (thousand Feet)
      Controller laughs. If you can reach it you're welcome to it.
      Blackbird pilot replies "descending from flight level 100"

      Of couirse it may be an urban legend. But the SR71 could go that high

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Um... Flight levels go in 100s of feet, so flight level 70 equals 7000 feet. 300+ flight levels are quite common these days for commercial aircraft.
        The story could still be true, but it would have been flight levels 1000 and 700

        • Helo dude (Score:3, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Flight level 600 and above is Class E and is still controlled airspace, despite no requirement to get FAA clearance to operate there.

          Class G is uncontrolled airspace.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by ericloewe (2129490)

        Yeah, you got it wrong.

        7000ft is FL070

        FL100, 10 000ft is stupidly low. So low it requires no pressurization.

        The joke goes something like:

        Small prop plane wants to boast, requests tower confirm its altitude, which is given as something like FL070.
        Hearing this, a smartass fighter pilot (some versions add a more subdued jet pilot between these two) asks for his flight level, which is given as something like FL400.
        Finally, a third (fourth) pilot asks for clearance to FL600. Controller laughs and says "You're cl

        • by Anonymous Coward

          7000ft is 7000 ft. Flight levels don't start until 18,000 ft - FL 180 on up until you are passed alpha airspce FL 600.

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Also in th US, the lowest used flight level is 180, i.e. 18,000 feet. Flight levels and altitudes also differ in that flight levels are expressed in terms of pressure altitudes (i.e. the altimeter is set at 29.92") where as altitude assignments below FL 180 use local altimeter settings. These rules are different in other countries.

        • by serviscope_minor (664417) on Sunday May 04, 2014 @09:26AM (#46912501) Journal

          I'd heard it was a ground speed check:

          I heard a Cessna ask for a readout of its ground speed. "90 knots" Center replied. Moments later a Twin Beech inquired the same. "120 knots," Center answered.

          We weren't the only ones proud of our ground speed that day...almost instantly an F-18 smugly transmitted, "Uh, Center, Dusty 52 requests ground speed readout."

          There was a slight pause then the response, "525 knots on the ground, Dusty." Another silent pause. As I was thinking to myself how ripe a situation this was, I heard a familiar click of a radio transmission coming from my back-seater. It was at that precise moment I realized Walt and I had become a real crew for we were both thinking in unison.

          "Center, Aspen 20, you got a ground speed readout for us?" There was a longer than normal pause... "Aspen, I show 1,742 knots." No further inquiries were heard on that frequency.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by nuonguy (264254)

        You might be talking about this copypasta:

        Boy, I thought, the Beechcraft really must think he is dazzling his Cessna brethren. Then out of the blue, a navy F-18 pilot out of NAS Lemoore came up on frequency. You knew right away it was a Navy jock because he sounded very cool on the radios. “Center, Dusty 52 ground speed check.” Before Center could reply, I'm thinking to myself, hey, Dusty 52 has a ground speed indicator in that million-dollar cockpit, so why is he asking Center for a read-out? T

        • by flyneye (84093) on Sunday May 04, 2014 @10:40AM (#46912741) Homepage

          Post by post, the fish gets bigger and changes species.
          The only liars bigger than fishermen are Hot Rodders and Pilots ; )

          • by Whiternoise (1408981) on Sunday May 04, 2014 @11:24AM (#46912935)
            The 'true' version can be found in Sled Driver which is phenomenally hard to get hold of in dead tree form:

            Our training flights took us over much of the western half of the United States. A typical sortie out of Beale included a rendezvous with a tanker over Nevada, accelerating to Mach 3 across Wyoming and leveling above 75,000 feet over Montana. We'd turn right approaching South Dakota, roll out in Colorado, and zip south to New Mexico. There we'd begin another right turn that would carry us through Arizona and straight to southern California, then out over the ocean and finally up to the Seattle area where we'd prepare to descend back to Marysville, California. This was a nice tour in two and a half hours.

            To more fully understand the concept of Mach 3, imagine the speed of a bullet coming from a high powered hunting rifle. It is travelling at 3100 feet per second as it leaves the muzzle. The Sled would cruise easily at 3200 feet per second, with power to spare. There was a lot we couldn't do in the airplane, but we were the fastest guys on the block and frequently mentioned this fact to fellow aviators. I'll always remember a certain radio exchange that occurred one day as Walt and I were screaming across southern California 13 miles high. We were monitoring various radio transmissions from other aircraft as we entered Los Angeles Center's airspace. Though they didn't really control us, they did monitor our movement across their scope. I heard a Cessna ask for a readout of its groundspeed. "90 knots," Center replied. Moments later a Twin Beech required the same. "120 knots," Center answered. We weren't the only one proud of our speed that day as almost instantly an F-18 smugly transmitted, "Ah, Center, Dusty 52 requests groundspeed readout." There was a slight pause. "525 knots on the ground, Dusty." Another silent pause. As I was thinking to myself how ripe a situation this was, I heard the familiar click of a radio transmission coming from my back-seater. It was at that precise moment I realized Walt and I had become a real crew, for we were both thinking in unison. "Center, Aspen 20, you got a ground speed readout for us?" There was a longer than normal pause. "Aspen, I show one thousand seven hundred and forty-two knots." No further inquiries were heard on that frequency.

            Found at the beginning of the chapter "Deep Blue". Walt refers to Maj Walter Watson [scafricanamerican.com]. There seems to be a variety of versions floating around, presumably Shul changes the speed each time he tells the story.

            • When I was a kid I used to dream of flying that fast, or be an astronaut and float in zero gravity, cuz it'd be cool. Now that I've grown up I no longer desire to do either, even if they paid me to, I mean I'd do it as a job, as a responsibility, but I would even pay not to have to do it if I didn't have to do it.

              I think the original story about the computer crash is trying to poke at the antiquated computer systems that have horsepower/performance issues with such simple things as computing airplane trac
            • by tlhIngan (30335)

              The 'true' version can be found in Sled Driver which is phenomenally hard to get hold of in dead tree form:

              Given it's only in deadtree form, it's actually not that hard to get. The special edition is out of print, but there's an unlimited one for sale [galleryonepublishing.com]. Online shopping, though not at Amazon, but it's not hard to get. Though I suppose for a year or two between the special editions selling out and the unlimited printing it might have been hard.

              The big problem is the price tag - $250! Yes, Two Hundred Fifty Dol

      • by k6mfw (1182893)

        Blackbird pilot replies "descending from flight level 100"

        Of couirse it may be an urban legend. But the SR71 could go that high

        From what I've read and heard, I think highest altitudes of SR71 is in the 90s. Some years ago a former SR71 pilot giving a presentation said the plane can go higher and faster but they were limited by temperature. Engines were powerful enough to go faster than Mach 3.3 but can airframe handle the higher temperature? Nobody wanted to try that out. I forgot his name, he was working for United Airlines at the time, but unlike many other pilots who gloss over technical stuff (there are many non-secret things

      • by Anonymous Coward

        The important thing to realize here is that controlled airspace in the United States tops out at flight level 600, aka 60,000 feet. Above that, air traffic control has no authority over you, and you have no obligation to talk to them. The U2 mentioned above might not have even been talking to any of the civilian ATC. Also, the joke is that the U2 and SR71 guys have to call ATC when descending below the 60,000 foot line, in order to get clearance to enter controlled airspace.

      • I remember hearing an anecdote about the SR71 Blackbird
        A Blackbird is entering commercial airspace over CA
        Pilot requests Flight level 70 (thousand Feet)
        Controller laughs. If you can reach it you're welcome to it.
        Blackbird pilot replies "descending from flight level 100"

        Of couirse it may be an urban legend. But the SR71 could go that high

        The SR-71's maximum altitude achieved in sustained level flight was 85,069 ft. It could not fly at 100,000 ft for a couple of reasons. First, the atmosphere at 100K ft lacks sufficient oxygen to keep the engines lit, both the turbine section and the ram jet section. Second, the air density is too low for the control surfaces to function at mach 3, causing directional instability, and likely the loss of the aircracft.

    • by wiredlogic (135348) on Sunday May 04, 2014 @10:26AM (#46912699)

      This could be a cover story for something they don't want to disclose. Just go back to watching the circus, Citizen.

    • by Ceiynt (993620) on Sunday May 04, 2014 @10:45AM (#46912771)
      It was a NASA owned U-2. They do atmospheric testing. They basically fly a pattern in the sky over and over. The problem with the flight plan was that the U-2 was assigned VFR-on-Top. What that mean is the plane was flying using VFR(Visual) flight rules on top of clouds. This normally occurs below 18000 feet. As such, I think the VFR-on-Top system was only designed for below 18000 feet. As the U-2 was above 60000 feet, the system was processing it for conflicts at every altitude, causing a buffer overflow. They are working on a patch to fix that problem, and in the meantime have implemented a workaround for us. That's what our memo told us at work. Source: I'm an air traffic controller at Denver En-route ARTCC.
      • Beale AFB, north of SAC fly's U2's.
        • by gatkinso (15975)

          As does NASA out of the Palmdale DAOF which is much closer to LAX. That said IIRC it takes the ER-2 about 45 minutes and over 200 nm to get to 60,000 feet depending on initial fuel load and climb speed. Usually there wasn't a problem operating over national airspace... they go out over the ocean, climb, and go feet dry over Vandenburg (ish).

          (I wrote software for an instrument that went on the ER-2 (the white one, the black one was off doing something classified), and later helped integrate that instrument

      • by Solandri (704621)
        Drat. I was hoping some naive programmer had used an unsigned int16 to store the plane's altitude in feet, and the U2 rolled it over. :D
    • Well, they used to mainly fly the U-2 over foreign countries, to spy on them.

      Now they are flying the U-2 over the US more and more, to spy on the newly discovered terrorists.

  • Well, no shit. Who else is going to be flying a U-2? U2?

    Still a badass plane, although I sure wouldn't want to have to be the pilot.

    • by iggymanz (596061)

      how about being one of the two guys that runs along side after landing and slowing, to grab a wing end and put the wheel under it like the ones that fell off during takeoff?

      • Don't they have an app for that?

      • No one does that. When it comes to a stop, it tips gently over to rest on the wingtip, which has a reinforced titanium strip on the bottom. Because of the wingspan, the tip is only a few degrees. Ground crews then go to the stationary aircraft to reinstall the pogos so it can taxi back.

        • by iggymanz (596061)

          they used to do that

          • When? The U-2 was designed by Kelly Johnson, a man who enforced simplicity wherever possible and valued the lives of everyone around his planes. Having anyone run up to it or chase it in a truck to install pogos while it was moving would risk a collision or injury, or both. Besides, the entire aircraft is only 16 feet tall, and the wings are maybe a third of that off the ground.

            As far as I know, the plane has always landed like that, and Kelly Johnson knew it would. That kind of practice doesn't start s

            • and valued the lives of everyone around his planes

              ORLY?

              The safety record of the F-104 Starfighter became high-profile news, especially in Germany, in the mid-1960s. In West Germany it came to be nicknamed Witwenmacher ("The Widowmaker").

              108 German pilots died thanks to Kelly Johnson.

              • Meanwhile, Spain managed not to lose any in accidents, primarily by using them in the interceptor role for which they were originally designed and not as the fighter-bombers that Lockheed tried to turn them into.

                Besides, by the time the F-104G came around, Johnson was working on the U-2 and the SR-71.

    • NASA flies them as research planes: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/ar... [nasa.gov]
    • by Richard_at_work (517087) <richardprice.gmail@com> on Sunday May 04, 2014 @09:18AM (#46912473)

      In the past the U-2 was flown by the CIA, the Taiwanese and the British Royal Air Force, and as another posted notes its still flown by NASA, so the comment is actually valid.

    • by laffer1 (701823)

      Wow that gives a whole new meaning to the song Vertigo.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Its not *that* fast, but flies very very high. The ugly with flying a U-2 is that there is a 32 mile per hour window between Vs and Vne (Vs is stall speed, Vne is Velocity never exceed: the point at which the wings are ripped off). So you have to go faster than the one, or the plane is falling out of the air, and go slower than the other, or the plane suffers irreparable damage (and still falling out of the air). If someone shoots a missile at you, there is no 'accelerate and get away', you can go a wee

    • by LWATCDR (28044)

      NASA.

  • u2 (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I thought they toured in buses? Anyway, what was Bono bitching about now?

  • First tell them that airspace is 3D :-), then make sure they stop putting a hard clamp of the type

    Airplane_altitude

    (Yes, I'm joking. I hope.)

    • Apparently, Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center has an exclusive contract with Khan Software Solutions, Inc. to deliver their software.
    • by cellocgw (617879)

      Well, that'll teach me not to preview, Let's try that again

      Airplane_altitude := min(reported_alt , 35 kft)

      (note to self: do not use R-language syntax at /. )

    • How often is an altitude of 60,000 feet not an error in reporting equipment (either altimiter or transponder)?

      • by cwsumner (1303261)

        How often is an altitude of 60,000 feet not an error in reporting equipment (either altimiter or transponder)?

        Note: "How often" does not matter in computer software, only "can it happen".
        If so, it must be handled. If only by popping an error.
        The alternative is disaster for you and your company...

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Perhaps they used signed 16 bit integers for height rather than unsigned 16 bit?

  • In and of itself this incident is not all that remarkable, but it is an interesting indicator of just how paranoid our government has become.
  • U2's have been flying for 50 years. I smell rotten fish. How does collision avoidance software not understand altitude?
    • by sumdumass (711423)

      Perhaps the software development for the current version was outsourced to another country and their developers didn't think anything would fly that high?

    • by mpe (36238)
      U2's have been flying for 50 years. I smell rotten fish. How does collision avoidance software not understand altitude?

      If the U2 had an operating transponder the LAX SSR would know it's altitude. If it didn't it would only show up on primary radar, possibly not very well given it's altitude, speed and low RCS.
      Maybe some sort of rounding error gave a bogus much lower altitude. I though LAX were ment to have sorted out all issue with possible conflicts between military and civil traffic after Hughes Airwest
  • This is just another example of STUPID that can easily be fixed by adding a few more lines of shit code and a couple million dollar layers of incompetent beureaucracy. I feel bad for the NSA on this one.
  • Can't you go anywhere without causing a scene?

  • by TheRealHocusLocus (2319802) on Sunday May 04, 2014 @10:53AM (#46912803)

    Air traffic controllers at LA center were forced to turn off clipping on Wednesday (cheat code 'idclip' [wikia.com]) when a high-flying U2 spy plane crossed the control area, sending inclined vertices soaring to 60,000 feet. "This really screwed up the level map," one unnamed controller said, "here we had commercial pilots navigating the prescribed holding tunnels, galloping up and down stairs, jumping to activate the rising platform that takes them into th final approach ramp. So you're a pilot and you have your chainsaw at the ready and all of a sudden you're up against this 60,000 foot wall. We didn't even know what it was then. And it's moving! Even with a thousand cacodemons under your belt, you're not ready for this."

    "The 'fake 3D Doom 2 engine [wikia.com]' has served American aviation well over the years. It runs on the piston and vacuum tube difference engines still used by the FAA. There are limitations but the math is fast. It's why modern airports tend to sprawl over large areas, though we've had to install higher fences with opaque textures around the runways to hide ground objects on adjacent runways and nearby buildings. When you're ready to touch down the lag can be incredible."

    The decision to turn off clipping was necessary but it came with a price. Few pilots had ever experienced no-clip mode, and while a few admitted to a sudden sense of exhilaration as they were liberated from the cruel physics of aviation -- most were anxious, even terrified. When asked why, one reacted with astonishment, almost anger. "Well shit, we're pilots. Avoiding things is just what we do. It's a trained response to avoid things. And it did not help at all when a few assholes broke formation and started to buzz through other airplanes. Every one of us was thinking, they're going to turn clipping on sooner or later, I hope it happens after this jerk gets off my ass."

    Others who requested not to be identified had other stories. "We began in formation then matched vector, then merged completely. I mean really merged. The passengers were really startled those from other planes floated into view and entered the cabin. Then someone started laughing, probably in sheer terror, but soon everyone was laughing and it was great fun. Isn't it funny how when something scary doesn't kill you immediately, you want to laugh? Isn't it?" After a moment he laughed suddenly.

    Collision alarms were not designed for no-clip and many were sounding constantly and could be heard clearly as pilots spoke over the radio channel. To make matters worse, the effect of no-clip was not confined to aircraft or the facilities. One pilot on approach noted "I almost swerved instinctively to avoid a fire truck sailing past, it must have floated off a ramp in the upper garage but there it was right in the approach path. Then this guy -- a businessman clutching a briefcase -- appeared and stopped in midair. He was flapping around like a butterfly, obviously pleased with himself for sailing through the glass of the upper lounge and out into the field. Then he turned slowly and there was this 200 ton aircraft bearing down on him. Like a stupid squirrel he fled directly down the flight path, glancing back. The look on his face as he passed through the cockpit was priceless."

    Landing was extremely difficult during this period. "Impossible, actually. In no-clip you're not really landing on anything, just trying to stop descending when you THINK you're on the ground. Fortunately there was no stall physics in play so we took it slow and I had the co-pilot hanging out the window trying to gauge the moment the wheels reached the ground. The plane in front of me was obviously waiting for touchdown, he just sunk into the tarmac and disappeared. I hear he drifted around under the airport for awhile and finally rose into a parking lot. They had to knock down fences to get it towed back to the field."

  • Oh, not that U2. :)

  • More like "Shitty Flight Control Software Caused Widespread Shutdown of US Flights Out of LAX", and will be patched like any other bug. But that doesn't make for quite an alarmist headline for a linkspam blogwank article like this.

    Fuck you, Hugh Pickens, fuck you.

    • by Virtucon (127420)

      If you were stuck at an airport trying to fly out or if you were flying into one of the airports affected then it was not just a minor software glitch, it was a major pain in the ass. For decades now the FAA has been trying to put into place a new ATC that will help eliminate these kinds of problems as well as higher more controllers but like with anything "gubment" it takes a long time.

      • If you were stuck at an airport trying to fly out or if you were flying into one of the airports affected then it was not just a minor software glitch, it was a major pain in the ass.

        Actually, incoming flights were fine.

        • by Virtucon (127420)

          No they weren't. This was just LAX [lawa.org]

          ARRIVING FLIGHTS TO LAX: A total of 27 cancellations, 212 delays, and 27 diversions to other airports

          During a ground stop, the FAA has to sort out what is going on because in this case the ATC computers went down. This means controllers shift their attention wholly to inbound flights and order the traffic the old fashioned way which is slow and tedious. That means a lot of circling planes or in case of circling too long or being at the back of the line, getting diverted and sitting it out someplace else, of course you're being held hostage during this time but just reme

    • by ShaunC (203807)

      The headline came from the Reuters article.

  • by tompaulco (629533) on Sunday May 04, 2014 @11:40AM (#46912981) Homepage Journal
    U2, B-52, SR-71, Saturn V, Concorde. All stuff either still in use due to no suitable replacement, or retired with no suitable replacement. It's amazing how brilliant our scientists and engineers used to be 50 years ago. It seems to me that the 50's and 60's was the pinnacle of human achievement.
    • 1) Industrial military complex == corruption.

      2) Technology progress is not linear. New areas are ripe with low hanging fruit and people trying to get there first to get as much as they can. Later, there is less to get and it is harder to reach; doesn't matter if you have smarter people. Another mistake is judging intelligence by quantity discoveries or even the quality of those discoveries; it's largely situational.

      3) We only require enough to defend against 1 major power; that is if you are pro-defense a

    • I've got a soft spot for the Avro CF-105 Arrow (altough there have been replacements) , shame it was cancelled...

    • by LWATCDR (28044)

      The B-52 is actually 60+ year old tech. It was going out of production when the Saturn V and SR-71 where in development. The Concord is a little later.

  • The U2 was the trigger. Any aircraft at that altitude and location would have triggered the problem.

  • 65536 feet? hmmmm

  • How long must we sing this song?

  • Controlled airspace is just that - by definition you must obtain permission before entering. I remember more than a few years ago hearing the unmistakable sound of a sonic boom. When I called the local airport they new exactly what the aircraft was - an SR-71 on a speed run from LA to Washington D.C. Sure the computer, being just an assemblage of silicon chips, didn't recognize that the U2 was harmless at 60,000 feet (whatever a foot is, you customary unit morons). And oh yeah, bring on the UAVs - what coul
  • When air traffic control seems an altitude of 60,000 feet. that is almost always an incorrect value. On rare occasions it is a very fancy plane.

    If you treat the fancy-plane situation as an incorrect value you create an inconvenience. If you treat the incorrect-value situation an a fancy plane you create a fatality. Which way are you going to bias your exception handling?

  • As per http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/v... [psu.edu] ERAM is implemented in ADA, no chance for a malfunction.

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