Airplanes and hackers.

Ok, so this story begins with my computer getting hacked, y’know, with one of those things that allows the guy to control your computer. Well, I was talking to my friend, and the subject of airplanes comes into the conversation.

And it comes into the conversation in this way. My friend is adament that there have been cases where people have hacked into the controls of planes and crashed them/ screwed with them, etc…etc. I’m arguing the exact opposite, but without any real knowledge of the situation, it’s quite difficult.

So, here’s my question to you know-it-alls (and I mean that in the most affectionate sense!): Has a plane ever been “hijacked” electronically by a hacker?

If not, is it at all possible?

The airplane’s controls would have to be somehow hooked up to a network in order for it to be hacked. Now, I don’t pretend to have much knowledge at all of computerized flight controls, but I can see no reason whatsoever why the flight controls would be networked to anything, so I really doubt that this has ever happened.

Some commercial airliners have autoland capabilities. And they all have autopilot. However, in order to remotely hijack a plane the hijacker would have to either install a radio-control system (requiring several hours – at least – alone with the aircraft and also unlikely to be overlooked by mechanics and others) or they would have to rig a radio control system that accesses the autopilot (I’m not even sure how they would do that). In any case, the autopilot can be shut off and the pilots would simply hand-fly the aircraft.

No aircraft has been remotely hijacked.

They using WiFi to control airplanes now? I bet this is an Airbus idea…

Without having a hardwire link into the auto pilot, I think it might be most difficult to control an airliner. Now, if you could jam all EMF from around the planes so that he could not use any navigation except his eyes and could not used any communication device and do this at night in bad weather when he is on instruments and have the bad weather go all the way to the ground and have him use all his fuel or make it dump on him, a safety feature on most big airplanes , except Airbus, so that he flames out and … well, prolly going to have to have one of those laptops you see on TV to be able to do it… And have it make all the pilot override safety features not work that disable the auto-pilot …

I think this was a plot point from the movie The Net. I know they caused a plane crash in it and I think it was by screwing up the instruments via the Internet. (Yeah, I know. The whole movie was like that.)

The bad guys caused a plane crash in Die Hard II as well but I think they were interfering with the ATC radar there.

Planes don’t run on Microsoft Windows. I find it hard to believe that many people will have the requisite knowledge needed to even attempt to fiddle with the operating system of any commercial jet liner, even if they did find a way of gaining access to it.

It was also used in the pilot episode of The Lone Gunmen (airdate: 4 March 2001). An airliner was to be crashed into the World Trade Center.

Heck, there’s several times a week when my PC won’t.
As others have noted, the big difficulty with remotely hijacking an airliner is the absence of any outside connection to the flight computer or controls.

What might be more feasible is to broadcast erroneous radionavigation signals (I think this is called meaconing). But there’s the point that aircraft have redundant instrumentation which should allow the pilots to detect this sort of thing.

If they’re alert. Sometimes, they are far from it.

The way they interfered with the approach control was physically impossible and could not be done even if they had full control of electronically.

[hijack - ha!]
ISTR somewhere that military aircraft can be controlled from outside sources. I heard something along the lines that strike aircraft could be vectored in to a target area automatically by an AWAC or ground controller, then the pilot would reume control once closer to the operating area.

Can anyone confirm or deny?

Scruloose, that wasn’t my specialty as I was a weapons system tech but you are basically correct. IIRC correctly it was a function of the data link system that could send steering information to the autopilot to send someone to an intercept but it couldn’t fly the plane.

I think you might be thinking of the sage system back in the late sixties , early seventies.


For those of you writing an action movie:

Ground crews presumably hook up diagnostic equipment to the plane to get readouts, the same way auto mechanics do. If one of those units was tampered with, possibly with a hacked software update, it could possibly install software in the plane’s systems (given some bad but routine security problems). Forget remote control if all you want to do is crash it.

Just wildly speculating.

Wild speculation is fine, but airplane maintenance is significantly different from auto maintenance.

What we really need is one of the guys who flies these things to check in - what do you want to bet they’re all at work today?

It would be impossible on Boeing aircraft. All computer controlled autoflight and other controls are easy to override. I have worked functional test jobs on the flight control systems of both the 777 and 737. Both aircraft have switches on the yokes and overhead that shut off all computer aided flight controls. The breakers to shut off the equipment is also located in the flight deck, in a true emergency they can be opened disabling the equipment. On the 737, there is a functional test job just for the purpose of testing the override systems. And citybadger is wrong, they don’t hook up diagnostic equipment to the airplane, it is built into the airplane. And changes to the software is done right in the flight deck. The 737 still uses floppy discs, the 777 has the capability for software upgrades with floppies or CD’s. There is a lot more info but I could be heading into the world of Boeing Proprietary stuff, I don’t want to go there on a public forum such as this. I really need my job.

Umm… this is the second time I seen you criticise Airbus out of the blue; do you have a vested interest to declare here? Don’t Boeing have a site in NW Arkansas?

That is so far-fetched! C’mon, they should at least try and make this stuff believable!

Airbus and Boeing are to pilots what Macs and PCs are to computer users. It is not unusual to get pilots who fly one bagging the other. I suspect that is where GusNSpot’s digs are coming from. Airbus is famous for automating the flight control system, some see it as over-automation.

Quote from a pilot friend who flies 747s: “If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going.”

Way I heard it:

Look to Lockheed for design. ( Connie – Oh, Oh, I think I’m gonna … )

Look to Douglas for engineering. ( RB-66 gear retract = out, up, in, down … )

And look to Boeing for damn fine airplanes…

And now we have Airbus. ( Airplane by committee… and I know how well committees work… )


PS: Make no mistake, I know I don’t like Airbus, I got reasons that make sense to me. Someday I may change my mind. — When they change the airplane.
I am not qualified to fly them, ( I am qualified to fly ) or design them, I am legal to work on them.

Don’t forget, the folks flying them are very very good. They are pro’s. On a daily basis, airline pilots ( all big iron pilots ) are compensating for less than ideal design and even saving the day when the book does not have the answer. Sometimes the book will kill you and your passengers. Airplanes still need the human mind as part of the system. IMO, we are not yet ready to totally remove him from the mix. ( not sayin Airbus does ) Just sayin that the safety record for Airbus has more to do with the pilots than the design. And that is not so good a direction to be moving IMO.