The air traffic control system over California shut down not long ago because the computers the Federal Aviation Administration uses were unable to handle a simple flight plan filed for an old U-2 spy plane. While the military filed all the right paperwork, and while the U.S. has been flying these planes for more than 50 years, 200 flights at Los Angeles International Airport were delayed or canceled because of the screw up. You’d better get used to the idea that this kind of thing is going to grow in frequency.
“On April 30, 2014, an FAA air traffic system that 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,” FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford said in a written statement issued by the agency.
The computer couldn’t quite accept that any plane flew up where the U-2 was going to be, and it tried to force its equations to operate with the plane at a lower altitude. It was overwhelmed by the chaos a U-2 at commercial-airline traffic levels would cause.
“The FAA resolved the issue within an hour, and then immediately adjusted the system to now require specific altitude information for each flight plan. The FAA is confident these steps will prevent a reoccurrence of this specific problem and other potential similar issues going forward.” OK, the words “reoccurrence” and “going forward” make up a phrase that needs to die because it means nothing. Everything is “going forward” — it’s the passage of time.
But a much bigger gripe is that I don’t believe for a minute that the shadow world of espionage and the military is going to stay entirely out of the way of the world the rest of us live in.
Consider this report from the very same FAA. On March 22, US Airways Flight 4650 from Charlotte, N.C., to Tallahassee, Fla., experienced “a near midair collision” with a small, camouflaged drone.
CNN reported, “The pilot reported that the small unmanned aircraft involved looked similar to an F-4 Phantom jet, and not like a helicopter that might hold a camera that many associate more closely with drones. Such planes have gas turbine engines and can fly higher than an average drone, according to the FAA. Neither the drone in this case, nor its pilot, have been identified.”
And they may never be.
The world’s airspace is just one area where the covert and overt worlds are going to collide more and more. There will be a lot of cyberspace activity that is going to inconvenience us, or worse, and we’ll never really know what the hell happened. Your e-mail account can be hacked. Your bank account can be emptied electronically from thousands of miles away. Your lights may go off because some Chinese hacker has probed America’s electrical grid a little too zealously. Because the laws of nations never envisioned an Internet, we’re in uncharted territory here. Governments that breach the defenses of other states aren’t about to brag about it, and those whose defenses are breached aren’t about to advertise it. They will keep it all hush hush, while we literally sit in the dark.
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.