Did a US Air Force U2 spy plane cause the FAA outage last week?

There is speculation by Reuters and other new agencies that a US Air Force U2 spy plane caused the massive outage at FAA’s LA Central facility last week. The outage, positioned as a ‘computer glitch’ in FAA radar system, caused massive delays all around the US, spawned by ground by almost every airport in Southern California and Nevada. The LA Central facility for the FAA managed high altitude air traffic control. Apparently the Air Force U2 flew into the air space managed by LA Central causing the computer system to proactively reroute aircraft to maintain safe distances. This caused the system to crash, causing a radar outage. This is surprising as the U2 typically flies at 60,000 feet, well above the typical 35,000 foot range for commercial aircraft.

I was personally impacted by the outage. I was trying to get out of Las Vegas airport when they had the ground stop. I finally got home, several hours late. I was lucky. I made my connection, despite the delay, as my connecting flights incoming aircraft was coming from San Diego, which had the same group stop.

All said and done, this is unacceptable. The FAA’s system should not be so fragile that a single unplanned aircraft can cause it to crash. The FAA is technologically well behind the Europeans in the air traffic control systems. They still rely on old 50s era radars and radio, in todays world of satellite, GPS and digital communication. Congress needs to fund the FAA for an upgrade.

I do not know if someone should be help ‘responsible’ for this mess. Its not the airlines fault, for sure. The FAA? The US Air Force? Did they not coordinate well with the FAA? Congress, for not funding the system upgrades the FAA needs. The world looks to the FAA, for leadership in airline safety. While we may not be missing 777s mid-flight, we should be having radar system outages either.

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  1. As usual, the media can’t get a clue. The actual U-2 didn’t cause the system to crash. No airplane’s presence can cause a computer failure. The flight plan for that plane, however, is what caused the system crash. Basically, the computer got confused as to what altitude the U-2 was flying at and tried to process the flight plan to all affected facilities, or so it thought. Trying to do this placed the computer into an infinite loop which eventually crashed the system.
    Should one flight plan be able to take down the entire system? No, but apparently it did. The FAA has already issued us ATC’s steps to not have this particular error occur again and will be fixing the software quickly (we hope).


  2. I’m not sure how to tell you this after your rant about modernization but the system that failed (ERAM) is a part of the modernization program and has only been online since December 2013.

    Other than unsubstantiated reports, there’s nothing to indicate there was a U2 flying that day or if it’s crossing into LA Center airspace was planned or unplanned.

    It appears to be a software bug that could have been triggered due to the flight profile of the U2 or other military aircraft operating in a way not tested in the system (this is the first installation of the system near 2 Air Force bases with “unique” aircraft.)

  3. Note that the FAA has been modernizing its system for several years. Known as ADS-B, it will eventually reduce radar sites and allow planes to “self-separate” based upon GPS installed in each aircraft and broadcast to all. The sticking point is actually getting the airplanes to pay for equipping their planes with the system! They would love for the Government to pay for it, even though they would save millions in fuel costs.

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