Earlier this week we picked up on a story claiming that a Soviet-era U.S. spy plane had caused computers at the L.A. Air Route Traffic Control Center to malfunction. This caused major flight disruptions at many major airports in California, including LAX, where 27 flights were cancelled, 212 were delayed and 27 were diverted. The FAA has confirmed in a statement that it was indeed the U-2 spy plane which caused this.

For those who don’t know the U-2 was used almost fifty years ago by the U.S. for high altitude reconnaissance missions over Russia. It operates at very high altitudes well beyond the ceiling of conventional airliners and when this incident happened it was up at 60,000 feet.

However the ERAM computer system used at the air traffic control center thought the plane was flying at 10,000 feet. It is ERAM’s job to keep planes from colliding into one another. At 60,000 feet the U-2 probably wouldn’t have been bothered by commercial air traffic, but since the computer thought it was flying at 10,000 feet, it used a large amount of available memory to process an extensive number of routings to de-conflict the U-2 and ended up frying itself, the FAA said.

In this scenario the U-2 plane posed no threat to other air traffic since it was at a very high altitude. But if this is how ERAM responds imagine a scenario in which a plane really is in danger of colliding with another, doesn’t this leave open the gaping possibility of the computer systems going down at the worst possible moment?

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