Mystery LAX disruption traced to legendary old spy plane


Last Wednesday, flights in and out of Southern California were disrupted — affecting thousands of passengers across the country — by a glitch the FAA explained as computer problems. Now NBC's Andrew Blankstein reports the trouble was generated by a flight into greater LA airspace by a high-flying U-2 aircraft. That is the Cold War spy plane developed for the CIA in top secret at Lockheed Aircraft's famed Skunk Works, on the airfield at what is now Burbank's Bob Hope Airport. (The first test flight was at Groom Lake, part of the so-called Area 51 complex in Nevada.) The U-2 was designed to take surveillance photos from as high as 70,000 feet of altitude, above where the Americans thought the Soviet Union's fighters, anti-aircraft missiles and even radar could reach. The world found about the existence of the U-2 when the Soviets shot down CIA pilot Gary Francis Powers in 1960, after a flight that originated in Pakistan, and paraded him for cameras. The KGB had known about the flights over Russian airspace for several years.

Details of last week's computer failure are not known — nor why a U-2 flying at its normal height would cause any outage. Blankstein says the trouble began when a U-2 flying at 60,000 feet began to be tracked by the L.A. Air Route Traffic Control Center in Palmdale. From his NBC story:

Though the exact technical causes are not known, the spy plane’s altitude and route apparently overloaded a computer system called ERAM, which generates display data for air-traffic controllers. Back-up computer systems also failed.

As a result, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had to stop accepting flights into airspace managed by the L.A. Center, issuing a nationwide ground stop that lasted for about an hour and affected thousands of passengers.

At LAX, one of the nation’s busiest airports, there were 27 cancellations of arriving flights, as well as 212 delays and 27 diversions to other airports. Twenty-three departing flights were cancelled, while 216 were delayed. There were also delays at the airports in Burbank, Long Beach, Ontario and Orange County and at other airports across the Southwestern U.S.

In a statement to NBC News, the FAA said that it was “investigating a flight-plan processing issue” at the L.A. Air Route Traffic Control Center, but did not elaborate on the reasons for the glitch and did not confirm that it was related to the U-2’s flight.

“FAA technical specialists resolved the specific issue that triggered the problem on Wednesday, and the FAA has put in place mitigation measures as engineers complete development of software changes,” said the agency in a statement. “The FAA will fully analyze the event to resolve any underlying issues that contributed to the incident and prevent a reoccurrence.”

According to Blankstein, the Air Force still uses U-2s. A spokesman for Edwards Air Force Base would not say whether there were any operations there involving a U-2.

Add Francis Gary Powers: After he was freed from the Soviet Union in a 1962 spy swap between the KGB and the United States, Powers returned to work as a test pilot for Lockheed. He lost that job after writing a 1970 memoir, "Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident." Powers later did airborne traffic reports for KGIL radio in the Valley and flew a news helicopters for KNBC Channel 4. He was killed in a crash of the KNBC copter, along with photographer George Spears, after running out of fuel over Encino in 1977.

Powers, who is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, received a posthumous Silver Star from the Air Force in 2012.

See also: How the U-2 has changed through the years

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