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Hijacking a plane via Android? No, not quite.

Posted by Patrick Smith  April 12, 2013 08:40 PM

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This is my preemptive plea, an open letter to the media, to rein in another silly airplane story before it garners too much traction.

Too late, I know.

I'm referring to the story, which began making rounds on Thursday, about the possibility of using Android devices or similar gadgets to "hijack" or "take over" commercial airplanes by inputting rogue data to the plane's ACARS or FMS units.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, good. Chances are you do, however. If so, try not to take it too seriously.

On one hand, Hugo Teso, the person behind this lecture/experiment, has a solid understanding of how planes fly, and is presumably familiar with the way pilots and their technology interact. Unfortunately, he's extrapolating wildly - or certain commentators and reporters are extrapolating wildly - and giving people the entirely wrong impression. What could be an interesting conversation is instead being dumbed down into alarmist nonsense.

ACARS is an air-to-ground communications system that allows messages to be sent back and forth over VHF radio frequencies or satellite link. The FMS, or flight management system, is the proverbial "computer" that you sometimes hear pilots mention. It presents an electronic, integrated blueprint of a flight - the various courses, altitudes, and speeds that we'll be flying at between city A and city B - which the plane's autoflight system - or the pilots, when flying manually - then follow.

This blueprint is based on a slew of manually and/or electronically inputted data. Much of this is data is loaded prior to departure, but a flight is very organic; our headings, altitudes, speeds, arrival and departure patterns, etc., are never forecast with certainty from the start. FMS data is subject to constant updating and revising over the course of a flight. Most of the changes are entered manually by the crew. Occasionally they are sent automatically from air traffic control or company dispatchers. Either way, we are clearly aware of them.

Teso wants you to believe your smartphone can send these instructions as well, causing a dangerous disruption.

The problem is, the FMS - and certainly not ACARS - does not directly control an airplane the way people think it does, and the way, with respect to this story, media reports are implying. Neither the FMS nor the autopilot flies the plane. The crew flies the plane through these components. We tell it what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. Whatever data finds its way into the FMS, and regardless of where it's coming from, it still needs to make sense to the crew. If it doesn't, we're not going to allow the plane, or ourselves, to follow it.

The sorts of disruptions that might arise aren't anything a crew couldn't notice and easily override. The FMS cannot say to the plane, "descend toward the ground now!" or "Slow to stall speed now!" or "Turn left and fly into that building!" It doesn't work that way.

What you might see would be something like an en route waypoint that would, if followed, carry you astray of course, or an altitude that's out of whack with what ATC or the charts tells you it ought to be. That sort of thing. Anything weird or unsafe - an incorrect course or altitude - would be corrected very quickly by the pilots.

Several websites that have picked up the story seem to contradict this by claiming that many modern planes "lack analog instruments" or have autopilot systems that cannot be switched off, etc. - basically claiming that pilots would be unable to recognize or react in time to pirate uplinks. For instance, in this report, it states: "A pilot could thwart an attack by taking the plane out of autopilot although he pointed out that several newer systems no longer include manual controls."

This is extremely misleading. While not all aircraft have direct manual reversion of flight controls, there is always a way for the pilots to disconnect the automation and, as we call it, hand-fly. Heck, more than 99 percent of landings and a full 100 percent of takeoffs are hand-flown every day.

To be clear, none of this is to suggest that beaming uninvited data into the electronic architecture of the cockpit is an acceptable idea. Of course it is not. There are aspects of this, such as how outside interference might interplay with fly-by-wire flight controls, and the emerging technology known as ADS-B, that warrant a closer look. That such things might be possible is, to be sure, a potential cause for alarm.

But even so, this is not by any stretch the sort of imminent threat people are being led to think it is. In fairness to Mr. Teso, I'm less annoyed by his demonstration than by the way some in the media have been spinning it. A hacker with an Android is not going to fly your 757 into the Empire State Building. Scary words like "hijack" and "takeover" have no place in this conversation.

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RELATED STORY: MORE MEDIA CLAPTRAP ABOUT COCKPIT AUTOMATION
This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, air travel columnist, author, and host of www.askthepilot.com. In his spare time, he has visited more than 80 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives in Somerville. More »

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