Spy plane brings western US aircraft to standstill

6 May 2014

U2 image via Wikimedia Commons

A US spy plane flying miles above Los Angeles grounded hundreds of passenger aircraft across the western United States because of a computer glitch in its transmitter.

The U-2 spy plane – the inspiration behind the Irish band’s name – was reportedly flying above Los Angeles when a computer glitch in the high-altitude plane made it appear as if it was flying at a much lower altitude to other aircraft, indicating a collision was imminent.

Affecting almost all aircraft in the western United States, aircrafts’ computers became overloaded as they tried to calculate multiple routes that would avoid these phantom collisions, leaving them grounded and unable to fly.

The incident occurred on 30 April, and a statement from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) confirmed the computer error.

“An FAA air-traffic system that processes flight-plan information experienced problems while processing a flight plan filed for a U-2 aircraft that operates at very high altitudes under visual flight rules.”

The statement went on to say the issue was quickly resolved.

“The FAA resolved the issue within an hour, and then immediately adjusted the system to now require specific altitude information for each flight plan.”

This did little to change the spirits of thousands of passengers who had initially been affected by the stoppage and while most aircraft had returned to the skies within a few hours, dozens of flights across the region’s smaller airports were still affected for a number of hours afterwards.

It is understood the U-2 plane had been conducting a routine training flight in the area at the time.

The plane has been used for spying and reconnaissance since 1955 and became famous after one of the aircraft was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 with its pilot, Gary Powers, put on trial for spying.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic