The Federal Aviation Administration says a spy plane and a computer system played crucial roles in last week’s computer glitch that temporarily paralyzed flight operations at Los Angeles International. But there may be more to the story than the government is letting on.
The problem involved a U-2 plane, the type famed for conducting reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The computer — which anticipates the flight path and looks for possible conflicts such as other aircraft or restricted airspace — was overtaxed by the many flight changes the U-2 had plotted.
A Federal Aviation Administration computer system interpreted the U-2’s flight path at a very high altitude as if it were flying in a much lower and more crowded airspace. That work used much of the computer’s memory and interrupted its other flight-processing functions, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said in a statement.
The hour-long computer problem led to dozens of delayed, diverted and canceled flights but did not result in any mishaps. It had the most impact in the Los Angeles area, where flights were grounded while experts sought to troubleshoot the problem.
To resolve the issue, the FAA “has enabled facilities that use the computer system to significantly increase the amount of flight-processing memory available. The FAA is confident these steps will prevent a reoccurrence of this specific problem and other potential similar issues going forward,” Brown said.
Two FAA officials, speaking on background Monday, blamed the shutdown on the unlikely convergence of two events.
First, a U-2 aircraft flew a path that involved many waypoints and altitude changes in airspace controlled by three facilities. Those facilities were the Los Angeles and Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Centers, and the High Desert TRACON at Edwards Air Force Base. Simultaneously, there was an outage of the Federal Telecommunications Infrastructure, a primary conduit of information among FAA facilities.
Gary Hatch, spokesman for Edwards Air Force Base, would not comment on the incident, but said, “There are no U-2 planes assigned to Edwards.”
In June 2010, NASA warned that as the Sun wakes up from its “deep slumber,” a massive solar storm could wreak havoc on our electronics, from satellites to the electrical grid, causing damages up to 20 times the cost of Hurricane Katrina. But the Sun isn’t the only threat to our electronic lifeline.
National Geographic explorers the risk and consequences of an ‘electronic Armageddon,’ that could be caused by an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) bomb.
An EMP bomb, National Geographic explains, is “a bomb that’s designed to go above the atmosphere and release huge amounts of energy,” some of which in the form of gamma rays. Such a weapon would cripple electronics, but not kill people.
“In less than a billionth of a second, the electrical intensity on Earth’s surface would become so hot that microchips would fry, power lines would overload and the electric grid would collapse,” says National Geographic. “Everything with microelectronics in it would stop: your car, your computer, the subway. There would be no electricity.”
But a bomb or a missile isn’t the only delivery platform available.
“Many now warn of an easily portable and remarkably inexpensive tool for delivery, a flux compression generator,” reports research blog ‘Intellectual Takeout.’ “Creating a strong magnetic field without the use of nuclear fission, this device can create electrical currents of tens of millions of amps. Though the range of the surge is thought to be smaller than high-altitude EMPs, it can still be catastrophic if detonated in densely populated areas.”
Earlier last week two Russian strategic nuclear bombers were detected near the West Coast. The interception was the second such occurrence in the past two weeks.
Pentagon spokesman Captain John Kirby stated NORAD fighters “visually identified” the Russian bombers.
“What Russia is doing in Ukraine and Crimea has a direct effect on what’s happening in the Asia-Pacific,” General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle said. “They’ve come with their long-range aviation off the coast of California; they circumnavigated Guam.”
Guam is home to Andersen Air Force Base, which has been used by the U.S. military for flights of B-2 and B-52 bombers across the Pacific. The Russian planes have stayed in international airspace, and such flights are not unusual, but the increase has U.S. commanders keeping a wary eye.
“It’s to demonstrate their capability to do it; it’s to gather intel,” Carlisle stated. “We relate a lot of that to what’s going on in the Ukraine.”
The first appearance of Russian nuclear bombers in U.S. waters happened in late June 2013, when two Tu-95 Bear H bombers conducted “war games” near Fort Greely, Alaska. The Russian military claimed in a statement that the exercises included simulated attacks on Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.