Can an airplane's control be overridden from the ground?

Not sure if this has already entered into common knowledge as scientific fact of technology, or if it is a conspiracy theory thing. Is this true? Can a plane be taken over by some ground control, or satellite control, by third parties and steered or taken elsewhere?

Short answer: No.

No. Unless the aeroplane has been specifically modified for it, you can’t take control from the ground.

To add to the answers so far … even specially modifying it is hard. It isn’t just a matter of plugging something in, or even wiring it into the circuits. The timing on an airliner control bus is very tight.

You really need to take out one of the existing components and replace it with a specially compromised version of the same component, sending correct signals with the right timing, but influenced by your external controller.

Needless to say your understanding of the original design would need to be very complete - not just an inside job, but an inside job by one of the original designers.

(Yes, there are people whose job it is to think about these things … I’m just paraphrasing their conclusions).

If that article is true, then yes, provided the plane is on autopilot. Turning off the autopilot will return control to the pilot. But even then, computerized gauges could be made to read incorrectly.

This isn’t a feature that airtraffic control has access to, but rather a security hole found by a consultant working in aviation security.
Basically, the aircraft’s Flight Management System allows for software updates to come in over radio, and the radio system used to send data to planes is unencrypted and has poor security, making it possible for someone to use a transmitter to pretend to be messages from Air Traffic Control, then upload an “update” that can make changes to the autopilot and/or instruments.

I found that article last year when it came out, as it was referenced in an article where, after discussing the hack-ability of various medical devices (a guy showed how he could use a smartphone to adjust a pacemaker instead of the device a doctor would use to make that adjustment), they quoted a security guy saying the smartphone would be the preferred murder weapon of the future.

It is an interesting design question.

I can’t imagine anything put in the air by anything other that a government test plane would be able to have this technology. I can imagine the liability issues alone would make the planes uninsurable.

However, it IS an interesting question to think if software could autopilot a plane to safely land without any human interaction.

I would imagine the possibility exists, but I don’t know how easy it would be to actually program a computer to mimic the decision-making of a pilot, who is making god knows how many reactions and adjustments to the slightest variance in wind speed, weather, and probably hundreds of other things that he is feeling as he is flying a large passenger aircraft.

It would be cool to think you could safely land a plane from the ground if it had been hijacked by locking out the plane controls and having the auto-pilot bringing the plane down to a safe landing anywhere it was programmed to land.

Good lord, I can see the specs. list now! It would be tens of thousands of pages… Send that baby out for an RFP!

Modern autopilots can and routinely do land airliners. The feature is called autoland and most newer, larger airliners have it and have for years. Its use requires special equipment at the destination airport to support the right type of ILS approach but most larger airports in the U.S. are suitable equipped.

Many modern airliners can go from takeoff runway centerline to landing runway centerline (including braking) with no direct control inputs from the pilot. The pilot does have to select the routing, talk to ATC and program the autopilot but there is no reason that couldn’t be automated further for use during emergencies or special circumstances.

I only skimmed the article, because I’m supposed to be working. But I saw a lot of future tenses that imply that the guy hasn’t actually taken over an aircraft. In any case, my first thought (after ‘Some hacker says this is theoretically possible’) was as in the quote above: ‘Just turn off the autopilot.’

From here:

The above quote was excerpted from here.


Interesting. I wasn’t aware that this even existed, yet alone for as long as it seems. It seems to require supervision by the crew. I wonder what checklist would have to be ticked off to engage a system like that on a loaded airliner with no crew available?

Color me skeptical. Controlling planes via ACARS is an extraordinary claim. The presentation slides say absolutely nothing about having found any exploitable vulnerability that would allow said control (not even something vague like “a bug in a certain vendor’s specific component”). Media coverage of these things is notoriously overblown.

One thing I can see possibly happening is spoofed transponder messages (possible since there’s no encryption/authentication, but maybe difficult if any sort of directional antennas are used) fooling the pilots (or autopilot) into thinking a collision needs to be avoided but even that only gives small temporary diversions from the planned course - not wholesale control. And the pilots would probably realize something funny was going on if you tried to spoof a whole slew of fake planes to try to make another change course.

There’s possibilities and probabilities. I suppose it’s technically possible to spoof enough GPS satellites above a airliner’s radio horizon to feed it a false position. I don’t see it happening, though.

In some fiction I’ve read, near borders they’ve had evil ATCs give pilots instructions to lead them into harm’s way. But that’s not remotely taking over the controls/instrumentation of the aircraft, that’s social engineering.

Yes it’s been around since the 1960s.

On the Avro RJ that I have experience with, auto land is just something that happens if you don’t disconnect the autopilot during an ILS. An ILS is a particularly accurate instrument landing system that provides both vertical and lateral guidance down to the touchdown zone of a runway. Setting up an ILS requires, at a minimum, tuning the frequency and pushing a button that arms the approach and tells the autopilot to follow the ILS guidance once it detects that it is intercepting the localiser and glide-slope “beams”.

What auto land will not do is control the speed and configuration of the aircraft. The pilots have to select progressively slower speeds in the autopilot mode control panel (MCP), and as the aircraft slows they must manually select flaps and lower the landing gear.

Does anti-aircraft fire count? That can certainly take a plane elsewhere than its original destination.

I just feel the need to point out that I can’t imagine any circumstance where the FAA wouldn’t say that was all bunk. As the cliche goes, they would deny it not just even if it’s true, but especially if it’s true.
That makes them a less than credible source.

Now, you correctly guessed that he’d never tried it on a real airplane (he felt doing so would be unethical) but can anyone find independent sources that either confirm or disprove his claims?
So far we’ve got some guy I’ve never heard of making some pretty outlandish claims on one side, and an agency with a motive to (at least publicly) deny it would work regardless of whether that’s true, so I think the score is basically 0-0.

Why would the FAA have a motive to deny that?

It’s not surprising that some people would believe the FAA would cover something like that up. But as a pilot, ISTM that the FAA is rather conscientious about safety issues. It’s said that the rules are written in blood. That is, they don’t make rules until enough people die. But if airliners could be commandeered remotely, I think they would take aggressive steps to correct the possibility. They can and do ground aircraft, as has been seen recently and over the decades.

I’m pert near certain that today, the answer is, “No!”. However, anything is theoretically possible and with enough time and effort, I would guess the answer - eventually - would be or could be … “Probably yes!”.

It is highly probable that the answer today is , “No!”. However, just wait a while.

It very probably will or can be possible in the not too distant future. I mean … after all, why not? It surely doesn’t seem like a very big problem!

My dad (coincidentally, he was an FAA Flight Service Specialist after he retired from the Navy) used to say, ‘Well… It’s pert nigh, if not plumb!’ Or ‘It ain’t plumb, but it’s pert nigh.’ No, he didn’t actually talk like that. He just liked to say that.

Thanks for the memory.

He can easily do a test on a real aeroplane flown for the purpose of the test, nothing unethical about that. He could even do it while the aeroplane was on the ground, it would cost very little.

If anybody says “I just found a huge hole in somebody’s security where any clod could get through”, the people responsible for that security are going to say “that won’t work”, if for no other reason than to keep dozens of people from trying it.

I didn’t mean to imply that the FAA might just leave things alone, but if there is a problem it will take time to correct it, and in the meantime they have a motive to try to dissuade people from trying to exploit it.