Spy Plane Scrambled Air Traffic Control in Southern California

Pierluigi Paganini May 08, 2014

FAA confirmed that its air traffic system experienced problems while processing a flight plan filed for a U-2 spy plane that operates in Southern California.

In the past, we had a long discussed on new cyber warfare scenarios, the conflicts in the cyberspace have many faces, we saw sophisticated hacking platforms like the NSA FOXACID and new cyber weapons like the result of the CHAMP project  (Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project).

Today I want to mention a case that remark as the possible effects of such weapons, principal defense companies are working close to governments all over the world to develop a new generation of offensive solution that can harm computer systems in the target without impacting population, a sort of digital bombing.

I’ve used the term digital bombing because in the case of CHAMP developed by Boeing was testing a new generation of missile which is able to attack the computer systems of a country without causing loss of life, using the microwaves to permanently knock out computers in a specific area.

“The project is born in a US military environment, specifically developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory, and it explores the possibility to design a directed-energy weapon capable of destroying and interfering with adversary’s electronic systems such as radar systems, telecommunication systems, computer systems and power distribution systems.” I wrote in a past blog post.

The concept behind the above project is also explored by foreign governments, for this reason today I desire to tell you what us happened in Southern California recently.

The Federal Aviation Administration has confirmed to NBC News that “Cold War-era spy plane” has scrambled the computer systems of a major air traffic control system in Southern California, the impact on the operation was important considering that flight in the area suffered a serious delay.

spy plane

At LAX airports there were 27 cancellations of arriving flights, as well as 212 delays and 27 diversions to other airports. 23 departing flights were cancelled, while 216 were delayed. The situation is quite similar in other airports in the area.

“In a statement, the FAA acknowledged that its air traffic system, which 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.”” report the NBC News.

According to a preliminary report, an U-2 spy plane, able to fly at high-altitude in spy missions, passed through the airspace monitored by the L.A. Air Route Traffic Control Center in Palmdale, Calif., around 2 p.m. on Wednesday. The L.A. center is considered strategic because it handles landings, departures and flight information at the major airports in the area, including Los Angeles International (LAX) and Las Vegas.
The systems at the center concurrently with the transit of the U-2 plane at 60,000 feet have begun to behave abnormally as explained by FAA that hasn’t provided an official explanation of the technical causes:

“The computer system interpreted the flight as a more typical low altitude operation, and began processing it for a route below 10,000 feet,” said the FAA in its statement.

“The extensive number of routings that would have been required to de-conflict the aircraft with lower-altitude flights,”  “used a large amount of available memory and interrupted the computer’s other flight-processing functions.”said the FAA,

As resultant after the passage of the U-2 spy plane the FAA had to stop accepting flights into airspace managed by the affected L.A. Center for about an hour,

FAA has adopted all the countermeasures to fix the problem, the affected system requires “specific altitude information for each flight plan,” and the agency confirmed that facilities that use the computer system to significantly increase the amount of flight-processing memory available.

What is happening is still a mystery, how is it possible that the U-2 spy plane has affected the control systems? Anyway, let me suggest you to read my post “Cyber Threats against the Aviation Industry” in which I have detailed possible threats to the aviation industry.

I have proposed the case to raise a reflection on the possible effects on a cyber weapon on air traffic systems. Let’s imagine a plan or a drone equipped with a CHAMP like system, it could be really dangerous and people still ignore it.

Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs –  Champ, aviation industry, spy plane)

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