CyberNadir: Former Pilot Randomly Speculates (Incorrectly) That Recent Airbus Crash Could Be The Work Of Hackers

from the all-the-'news'-that's-fit-to-cram-into-a-24-hour-sprawl dept

CNN and Fox had the market cornered on ridiculous airplane crash theories, up until recently. When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 just up and vanished, CNN produced wall-to-wall coverage seemingly cribbed from low-rent conspiracy theory sites. UFO? Black hole? Any and all theories were entertained.

Fox News hasn’t exactly been the epitome of restraint, either. While it managed to avoid following CNN down these plane crash rabbit holes, it too has entertained some theories better left to operations that don’t claim “news” to be a major part of their offerings. Fox News host Anna Kooiman suggested the metric system was to blame, what with kilometers being different than miles and Celsius and Fahrenheit not seeing eye-to-eye, potentially leading to some sort of in-flight calculation error.

MSNBC has decided it won’t let its competition be the only “news” agencies spouting ridiculous theories. In an effort to get out ahead of the facts — black box recordings indicated the co-pilot of the aircraft deliberately crashed the plane after locking the commanding pilot out of the cockpit — MSNBC allowed the following theory to be presented — completely unchallenged — by one of its guests.

“There’s one possibility that no one has brought up, and I wonder could this be a hacking incident?” former commercial pilot Jay Rollins told MSNBC’s Diaz-Balart. “This is very similar in my mind to what happened when the U.S. lost that drone over Iran. The same thing, suddenly the aircraft was responding to outside forces…”

Rollins said that the plane’s descent was “worrisome” because “it makes me think about hacking, some sort of interference into the computer system.”

Now, hacking a plane isn’t impossible. At 2013’s Hack in the Box conference, German security consultant Hugo Teso used his own app — PlaneSploit — to demonstrate that an Android phone could be used to reroute a plane, send it diving towards the ground or to set off every alarm in the aircraft.

Or not. Teso’s demonstration involved sending flight information to airborne planes with these instructions (in a simulated environment, of course) via ACARS (Aircraft Communications and Response Addressing System) to the FMS (Flight Management System). But there were multiple problems with his plan. First of all, the flight computer has to accept the new instructions and, secondly, pilots would have to be unable to override bad instructions. Neither of which are a distinct possibility.

Patrick Smith, another commercial airline pilot, albeit one far less likely to openly speculate on “hacked” planes than Jay Rollins, pointed out the flaws in Teso’s hack.

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.

So, the problem isn’t that hacking is impossible. It’s just very, very unlikely. And in this case, hacking had nothing to do with the plane crash.

No, the problem is that news agencies looking to wring every bit of ratings possible from a tragedy are willing to make viewers stupider under the guise of “news.” When facts just aren’t available, 24-hour news teams lean heavily on whatever theory will provide the most entertainment (for lack of a better word). Former pilot Jay Rollins may have three decades of experience, but his speculation draws on none of it. Instead, it just takes a bit of what’s selling right now (anything “cyber”) and what has always sold (fear) and leaves the viewers with less information than they would have obtained by skipping the coverage completely. The truth, however, is simultaneously more horrific (in that there’s little that can be done to thwart a pilot determined to crash a plane) than the “hacked plane” theory and more mundane — at least in terms of “exciting” news coverage.

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Comments on “CyberNadir: Former Pilot Randomly Speculates (Incorrectly) That Recent Airbus Crash Could Be The Work Of Hackers”

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Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Fox News host Anna Kooiman suggested the metric system was to blame, what with kilometers being different than miles and Celsius and Fahrenheit not seeing eye-to-eye, potentially leading to some sort of in-flight calculation error.

Now, I’m no fan of Fox News, but it’s worth pointing out that that theory sounds a whole lot less ridiculous when you realize it’s actually happened at least once.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Some ground-based software produced output in pound-seconds instead of the newton-seconds specified in the contract between NASA and Lockheed. It wasn’t so much a conversion error as a failure to use the wrong units to begin with.

But this was for a one-off application, failing the first time it was used. Flights in Europe would have been using metric on millions of flights now for decades. Even on Boeing aircraft in North America, metric has been in use now for over 30 years.

The Gimli Glider incident – where an Air Canada 767 ran out of fuel during a flight – involved a metric-conversion mix-up.

– But this was a brand-new aircraft type.

– The first jetliner they had using metric.

– And also the first jetliner where they got rid of the engineer. The one whose job it was to ensure that the aircraft was properly fueled.

– And Air Canada never set a policy to cover this.

– A faulty fuel sensor was discovered on the flight before. This was OK, so long as a floatstick measurement of fuel was done. There was a whole series of mistakes and misunderstandings here alone.

– The ground crew guy fueling the aircraft had to convert from the truck’s gallons to pounds, then from pounds to litres. He used the correct conversion factor, but in the wrong way.

– He then got the pilot to sign off on it, thinking that the pilot was responsible.

– The pilot saw the correct conversion factor on the paperwork and signed off on it, thinking that the ground crew was responsible.

– The airplane took off with lots of power and a great climb rate – because it didn’t have all that fuel weight. But this was a wonderful new aircraft type that had a reputation for just that, so it didn’t act as a warning.

This was when metric was first in use, not decades later, and even then the conversion was just one in a long chain of problems that led to a bad day. It wouldn’t be a problem today. Especially not in Europe.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Yeah, that’s got to be it because they never test that sort of thing before certifying a human rated aircraft.

Back in the day before the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander failed (late 90s) it was chic for upper management to fling about the phrase “Faster, Better, Cheaper”. So eager middle management began to implement those “requirements” which resulted in several high profile failures. It is interesting that you no longer hear that sort of phrase anymore, and for good reason. It was learned the hard way that you can have only two of the three, and you should consider yourself luck to get that.

So, yeah. That theory is bullshit. To compare a human rated aircraft to that of a non human rated spacecraft is simply beyond ridiculous.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

To compare a human rated aircraft to that of a non human rated spacecraft is simply beyond ridiculous.

Why? Sure, the people who screwed up on the spacecraft weren’t airline pilots… but still, remember what they were: rocket scientists. Literally. Which, if the popular lexicon is to be believed, are supposed to be the smartest of the smart, and yet they managed to screw that one up because they’re still human.

So why couldn’t a mere airline pilot?

I’m not saying I believe that that’s what happened. Only that it shouldn’t be simply dismissed out of hand as too implausible to be worth taking seriously.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

And yet conservatives are the ones who continue to thump the drum of American Exceptionalism™ that has prevented us from joining the rest of the world in adopting the metric system.

It’s utterly blasphemous to recommend that AMERICA!!! of all places should follow the lead of those froggy French.

Freedom Inches, after all…

AricTheRed says:

I'm Lovin' it!

This guy is just like some of my ancestors, updated.

Former commercial pilot Jay Rollins- “I can’t possibly comprehend how this thing/situation/event could possibly have happened! Absolutly unfathomable, it must be, like, hackers or something!”

AricTheRed’s pagan ancestors during the neo-lithic age- “I can’t possibly comprehend how this thing/situation/event could possibly have happened! Absolutly unfathomable, it must be, like, spirits, gods, or magic or something!”

Anonymous Coward says:

Leaving the story about this particular plane behind (’cause I don’t care), RenderMan’s talk at Defcon 20 (Hackers + Airplanes – No Good Can Come of This) didn’t make the impression that planes are particularly safe from malicious signals. You wrote that pilots could take full control of the plane’s flight path (override whatever). I’d just like to ask again, are you certain that this is the case and there is absolutely no system in place that can override the pilot?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

It’s a bit of both actually; for modern jetliners, there’s autopilot mode, then all sorts of assisted modes, and a fully manual override.

Autopilot is just what you’d expect; ACARS working with the FMS to fly the plane. However, when the plane is in assist mode, many of the details will still be automated, kind of like a modern automatic transmission car. These allow a pilot to easily pilot the plane without a lot of extra assistance. Messing with these automated systems would be significantly more difficult than messing with ACARS, but not impossible. It would be kind of like messing with ABS, fuel injection, or the transmission on a car. The pilot would notice pretty quickly.

And unlike automatic cars, airplanes still do have a manual override. However, this means that the huge jetliner is being controlled via manual interfaces — think manual steering, gas, breaks, and then imagine you’re driving a 16-wheeler instead of a compact car.

So there is absolutely no system in place that can override the pilot absolutely, but that doesn’t mean the pilot’s going to be able to successfully pilot and land the plane in fully manual mode. Doing so would probably take two or three people (pilot, copilot, and someone else), and would probably require a lack of extra factors such as bad weather.

If it was only one system that was compromised, they’d probably be able to figure that out and disable it without too much difficulty — but if the entire automation of the plane had been thoroughly compromised, it will be a test of the pilot and copilot’s real flight skills to see if they can get everyone on the ground safely.

MondoGordo (profile) says:

Re: Re: Airbus 300 series (and most modern airliners)

Are all fly by wire implementations – that is no mechanical linkages between flight controls and flight control surfaces. So while there is a “fully manual mode”, it’s manual control of electronic input devices to electronically controlled actuators. While there are mechanical backups available for some flight control surfaces they are intended to be used in the event of a computer failure(4 redundant systems); realistically there is no way anyone is going to land a plane using the mechanical controls for rudder, trim and landing gear.

There is no way to take the electronics that ultimately control the planes’ flight out of the equation in any practical sense.

Every one of those systems is controlled by a “computer” and every subsystem is vulnerable to subversion.

Think what would happen if a hacker inserted a multiplier into the code interpreting input from the flight yoke … a 2 degree steering adjustment at the yoke becomes a 95 degree hard bank … or a hack that flips the yokes’ orientation … pulling the yoke back causes the plane to dive … turning the wheel right banks left … or better yet a simple hack that just tells the fuel system that the throttle is set to idle …

It would be virtually impossible to keep a modern airliner under control if the basic control systems were subverted.

I know all this and I still fly … it’s still the safest way to travel.

aldestrawk says:

Re: Re:

I’ll take this post seriously and point out the problems with that idea. Do you think TSA will let you take a parachute on board? What makes you think you can physically open a door while the plane is flying at full speed? Even if you could physically open the door, do you think others on the plane will act rationally and let you do it? What do you think will happen if you exit a plane going 600mph?

MondoGordo (profile) says:

Re: Re: Flaws with your questions ...

1) you forgot to point out that likely he won’t ever be getting on a plane again if he tries … the TSA has NO sense of humor and a no-fly list.

2) considering the aircraft is pressurized … he might be able to … depends on the kind of door

2)I would think stopping him from doing it WOULD BE the “rational response” …

Jake says:

I don’t think there’s ever going to be a perfectly reliable security measure about a pilot going round the twist and turning his or her aircraft into a lawn-dart because the CIA’s orbiting brain-lasers made him or whatever the poor mad sod believed, which certainly seems like the likeliest explanation to this somewhat informed layman.

aldestrawk says:

So, evidence now points to the co-pilot intentionally crashing the plane. He did this when the pilot left the cockpit to use the bathroom. What was probably the only sane response to 9/11 was to reinforce the cockpit doors and keep them locked. Here, you have the cockpit door being used as an impenetrable barrier being used as part of the plan to crash a plane. What do we do now?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

…the cockpit must have two people in it at all times…

In the history of aviation, we have documented numerous incidents where one of the two pilots has gone back into the cabin to look out the side windows. Usually, that procedure is carried out subsequent to something like an engine explosion, where the pilots want to know how much of the wing is left, and what’s still holding the tatters onto the airplane.

In any case, even if the pilot just wants to check something as mundane as ice buildup, the “looking out the side window” procedure is not something you want to delay with rigamarole over “two people in the cockpit at all times”. The pilots need to know the condition of the aircraft RIGHT FUCKING NOW.

We’ve recorded many more of these looking-out-the-side-windows-at-the-wing-or-engine incidents than incidents of suicidal or deranged pilots.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

So how come airlines don’t have little cameras mounted all over the plane showing all the vital parts of the plane to the pilots, on a monitor in the cabin, with simple function checks built into those vital components to display conditions like “Not Working”, and “Fully Operational”?

Too expensive??

Too Science-fictiony??

Just Another Anonymous Troll says:

Re: Super l33t hax0r!!!1!!11!

Maybe it was one of those kids that Watch_Dogs taught to hack, and he pressed a button on his phone that remotely manually overrided the door and changed the recording on the black box to make it look like the copilot locked the pilot out.

Gordon says:

Two in the cockpit

Already a number of European airlines have announced they are implementing this. If a member of the flight crew has to leave the cockpit then a member of the cabin crew has to go in.

It wasn’t that long ago that ‘low-cost’ carrier Ryanair wanted regulations changed to allow just one pilot on short flights…

GEMont (profile) says:

Beware of nine year olds bearing laptops!!!!!

The new CSI Cyber-Terrorist show – (starring my favorite lady bartender from Boardwalk Empire) – is doing its level best to teach the US public that anything that has a motor, batteries, or connects to an electric outlet, can be hacked by the newest super-villains – the Cyber Hackers – into an atomic bomb, or a death-ray cannon.

All they need is a laptop, a sexy partner, and lots of coffee.


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