Did An Old Spy Plane Disable Air Traffic Control Computers?

A Cold War-era spy plane may have been the cause of a grounding called in southern California by the FAA after a computer system malfunctioned.

Did An Old Spy Plane Disable Air Traffic Control Computers?
Flickr / Bryce Edwards

A recent computer glitch that caused flight delays throughout Southern California may have been caused by a relic from the Cold War — a U-2 spy plane. 

The U-2, for the uninitiated, is a spy plane most notably used during the Cold War for spying on the Soviet Union. It was hoped that flying at 60,000 feet would help it evade detection... which was proved wrong when one was shot down in 1960 while over Soviet territory. (Via HowStuffWorks & Motor Trend)

According to NBC, by flying over the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center on Wednesday, a U-2 caused the computers at the center to crash. 

"The computers at the L.A. Center are programmed to keep commercial airliners and other aircraft from colliding with each other. The U-2 was flying at 60,000 feet, but the computers were attempting to keep it from colliding with planes that were actually miles beneath it."

The Los Angeles ARTCC handles higher-altitude aircraft traffic in southern and central California, southern Nevada, southwestern Utah and western Arizona. With its computer systems down, both incoming and outgoing air traffic in the area was forced to stop.

According to USA Today, the computer system that failed is part of the En Route Automation Modernization system, or ERAM. A professor in air-traffic management told them "No one – I don't care who you are in the FAA – no one is going to operate this very complex and sophisticated system in a degraded format."

ERAM, which is contracted out by Lockheed Martin, tracks flights between airports in 20 zones across the U.S. and provides detailed information. (Via Lockheed Martin)

The New York Times notes that ERAM has received criticism from the Government Accountability Office for delays and overshooting its $2.2 billion price tag. 

So, the question is — did an antiquated Cold War spy plane cause ERAM to crash and delay flights for thousands on Wednesday?

One writer at The Aviationist is a bit skeptical. Referring to FL600, or the height at which the U-2 flies, he writes "it’s worth noticing that the U-2 has been flying above FL600 for more than 50 years ... it seems at least weird that a U-2 transponder triggered the problem only on Apr. 30."

So far there's been no official word from the FAA or Los Angeles ARTCC on the cause of the downed computer system.