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Military spy plane caused major software glitch, affected hundreds of flights

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On Monday, the Pentagon confirmed that a U-2 reconnaissance spy plane was in the region when hundreds of flights were canceled or delayed along the West Coast last Wednesday.

A major software glitch in the air traffic control software was unable to distinguish the U-2 spy plane from commercial aircraft, causing the ERAM system to go into overload and shut itself down as a precautionary measure. The temporary ERAM shutdown at an FAA facility in Palmdale, Calif., disrupted travel plans for tens of thousands of travelers, prompting a nationwide halt of all flights headed to the West Coast.

Army Colonel Steve Warren said the Pentagon's acknowledgment that the flight was in the area should not be considered confirmation that the U-2's presence was a factor in the flight delays at Los Angeles International Airport

"I can tell you that there was a U-2 operating in the area in accordance with all FAA regulations. It filed a flight plan. It was conducting a training operation," Warren said.

In February, 2011 aviation expert Robert Poole warned about ERAM hardware and software project in an Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter. Poole wrote:

“DOT Inspector General reported to Congress that the $2.1 billion En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM) hardware and software project has slipped by four years and will be $500 million over budget. Because ERAM is such a central part of the whole ATC operation, its ripple effects will affect a number of other NextGen elements.”

In 2009, National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) Safety & Technology Director, Dale Wright told members of the Senate Aviation Subcommittee there were several outstanding shortcomings with the FAA’s methodology and plans NextGen that needed to be addressed at the early stage of the process. NATCA's recommendations included:

“Human factors must be addressed – Several of NextGen’s proposals raise serious concerns regarding human factors, including the increased complexity and safety risk inherent in a best equipped, best-served policy. These issues must be addressed during the development stages in order to avoid delays, cost overruns, and safety failures.”

According to a Wall Street Journal report, the U.S. Air Force still operates a fleet of about 30 of the Cold War-era spy planes known as "Dragon Ladies," which are being phased out. In 2011, Air Force Maj. Mary Danner-Jones announced that U-2 spy plane would be replaced by the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft in 2016. The unmanned drones will cost $2.2 billion less to operate than the U-2 aircraft.

Aviation security experts have warned that drones flying into civilian airspace over the United States pose a serious security threat as they may be difficult to monitor in the long run and some craft may fall into enemy hands. In 2012, an aerospace engineering expert, Todd Humphreys told lawmakers during testimony before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee that unmanned aircraft, or drones, including those employed by U.S. law enforcement agencies, are vulnerable to hacking because they use unencrypted GPS information for navigation.

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