One More Thing Not to Worry About: Airliners Turning Into Drones

Spare your precious we-are-all-doomed thoughts for other topics.

Thumbnail image for pilots.jpg

Here's another quick item I can take six minutes to post while still in article-deadline-hell mode. It's a warning, from a computer-security conference in Amsterdam, that hackers equipped merely with Android phones could remotely take control of an airliner and guide it in all sorts of unwelcome ways, including right into another plane. As in the classic pilot-world joke photoshopped item above.


You can see the whole scenario described at Computerworld, but here is the crucial passage, with my emphasis added at the end:
Once [the hacker with an Android] was into the airplane's computer, he was able to manipulate the steering of a Boeing jet while the aircraft was in "autopilot" mode. The only countermeasure available to pilots, if they even realized they were being hacked, would be to turn off autopilot. Yet many planes no longer have old analog instruments for manual flying
Two words: Unt. Uh.

Let's set aside the "if" of whether pilots would notice that the plane was going where it shouldn't. True, there have been cases of flight crews losing attention while talking or even dozing off en route. But most flight crews most of the time are tracking the plane's progress along a series of waypoints, and talking to air traffic controllers about where they're going and why. 

Instead, these two issues:

1) You don't need instruments to control a plane. That is like saying you need a speedometer to drive a car. Obviously you want all the info you can get, and in an airplane the airspeed gauge in particular is very important (mainly in gauging proper speeds for approach and landing, in flap deployment, and in avoiding aerodynamic stalls). But even basic pilot training includes drills in how to control the plane if instruments fail. There's a special case we can set aside for the moment: the difficulty of controlling the plane if you are inside a cloud and lose the instruments that keep you oriented. 

2) Every non-drone airplane flying anywhere in the sky is equipped for "manual flying." That is how they all get off the ground, with some pilot applying the power, pulling back on the control wheel/stick, and managing the "rotation" as the plane lifts off from the runway. This is how planes usually land. Every single airplane -- every one -- is equipped with systems to allow the pilot to bring it back to earth if all the automated wizardry fails. Every pilot is made to practice these emergency measures. Again to put it in automotive terms: imagining that you could not fly the plane if you turned off the autopilot is exactly like saying that you could not drive a car if you turned off cruise-control.

The Android-hacking scenario might apply to drones -- I don't know enough about the override abilities the ground-based human pilots have. (After all, the controller and the hacker would both be sending commands remotely.) But I can tell you that no one with an Android phone is going to make it impossible for a pilot to land any of today's real planes.
Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In