Cover-Up: Why The FAA Is Wrong When It Says Airplanes Are Not Hackable


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The Federal Aviation Administration is wrong and either misinformed or involved in a cover-up when it says hackers can’t take over a modern aircraft: Authorities dismiss alleged airplane hijack hack.

If you click on that link, please read the comments. They are far more intelligent, thoughtful and  illuminating than the FAA’s.

Truth is that neither the FAA nor the global airline industry nor any country’s air transport regulators can afford to let the flying public know how buggy, unpredictable and hackable the flight control systems in a modern fly-by-wire aircraft really are. The economic consequences of those disclosures would be too disastrous. Just look at what the Icelandic volcano flight delays did to airline profits.

The following is from my heavily researched, investigative thriller, Die By Wire. This excerpt shows the “good guys” beginning to figure out how the bad guys are going to do a 9/11 the global aviation industry.

Future posts here will detail (without spoilers) more about how this is so very doable.

FROM DIE BY WIRE

“How could we get a modern fly-by-wire aircraft to commit suicide?”

“Remember, cockpit controls today lack physical connections.” Noord’s voice carried the authority of someone who had flown the very aircraft he had helped design. “No cables, no hydraulic links between the wheels and pedals to the wings, the engines, to the tail.”

Noord paused. His nose and upper lip curled like he had just gotten a whiff of a loathsome odor.

“Pilots today don’t fly an aircraft anymore,” he said. “Much of the judgment is taken out of their hands and placed in the bowels of the computers. We have a saying that the cockpit of today consists of two men and a dog. The first man is there to watch the computer display. The dog is there to bite him if he tries to touch anything. The second man is there to feed the dog. Sadly, today’s airline pilot plays a glorified video game of a Flight Simulator.”

“But why?” Mira asked.

“Economics mostly, “Noord explained. “Eliminating direct physical controls means a big weight savings, no hydraulic pumps, tubing, fluid and reservoirs. That trims fuel costs. The computer software can also build in limits to keep pilots from using their best judgment.”

Noord paused, cleared his throat.

“And in an insane effort to save even more money, the very newest aircraft are starting to use wireless connections instead of wires, a sort of WII Fit and WiFi meets avionics.”

“Sir?” Theo raised a deferential hand. “All of our other aviation sources say that fly-by-wire control systems have backups that have backups. Three different hardware systems from three different manufacturers running three different operating systems that check everything against each other. Nothing has ever malfunctioned.”

Noord’s laughter conveyed scorn, skepticism, weary resignation.

“There have been many reported… anomalies. Loss of power, blanked out displays, instrument and control malfunctions. Some happen only once and most times the software engineers never determine the cause. All have been deemed within operational limits. Pilots have learned to live with the unpredictability of unpredictable events.”

“Unpredictability of unpredictable events ….” Theo’s voice came soft and vague. “Within operational limits.”

Oblivious to the baffled looks around him, the gifted mathematician craned his head at the ceiling, his gaze fixed on a distant horizon. He worked his head this direction and that.

“Chaos theory.” He nodded at something only he could see.

Comprehension pinched his lips and sliced deep vertical lines between his brows.

“You’ve heard of the ‘butterfly effect,’ yes? The concept that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon could create … result in a hurricane in Florida?”

Heads nodded.

“Tiny unseeable effects that strengthen each other in just the right way can amplify a very small effect into a very large one,” Theo continued.

“But wouldn’t system redundancies and flight testing prevent that happening in a computer?” Stocker asked.

“That would make it less probable,” Theo shook his head. “Not impossible.”

“Experience bears that out,” Noord said, “especially with the phenomenon of aeronautical flutter.”

Eyebrows arched.

“No matter how good the design of new aircraft, flight testing always reveals resonant flutters at various speed configurations,” explained Noord. “Many of these can shake the aircraft apart. To prevent that, flutter testing involves an extensive, and expensive, airworthiness certification.

“Because even small changes can alter flutters in big ways, aircraft are tested in every possible configuration: empty, full and partially loaded at every intermediate level, with uneven fuel loadings, with every possible engine, engine cowling, simulated ice build-up. You name it, everything the engineers can think of.

“Before fly-by-wire,” Noord continued, “flutter testing was accomplished by adding weights to the wings, or the control surfaces, physically altering various parts of the aircraft to see what would cause flutter, instability or some other malfunction. But with fly-by-wire, the actual flight control computers are programmed to shake, rattle and roll the plane’s control surfaces. Re-engineering physical components fixes some flutter problems and others are patched up by altering the computer code to prevent pilots from executing maneuvers that would cause an instability.”

“Conversely, you could crash a plane by programming the fly-by-wire system to cause flutter instabilities,” Mira asked. “Especially known flutter problems that engineers fixed only in software, not on the aircraft itself.”

“Theoretically,” Noord said. “But you’d have to have direct access to the computers and software in a manner that could coordinate a number of simultaneous crashes. That level of access is unlikely.”

“Not if you were Tau Partners,” Theo said, “which has the world’s biggest database of system flaws. That could be exploited to create a failure cascade that could predictably cause numbers of aircraft to self-destruct on command. To disappear over deep water without a trace.”



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