Did a Super-Secret Spy Plane Cause Travel Chaos at Los Angeles Airport?

Several media reports this weekend blamed a ’70s-era Air Force spy plane for causing more than 200 flights at Los Angeles International Airport to be canceled or diverted.

So it is true?

Not according to the Air Force.

An Air Force U-2 Dragon Lady flies a training mission. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Rose Reynolds)
Seen here in a training photo, the Air Force U-2 Dragon Lady is a high-altitude, all-weather surveillance and reconnaissance plane that can fly day or night. (U.S. Air Force photo)

A U-2 “Dragon Lady” reconnaissance plane was airborne over California April 30, and an Air Force spokeswoman acknowledged the U-2 was flying an approved Air Force mission, but contradicted the media reports; “we can confirm the U-2 did not cause the air traffic control system to fail.”

Multiple news stories in the last 48 hours claimed the plane was “on a secret mission” and “fried the computers” at an air traffic control center, or that the air traffic controllers were seeing the plane at a different altitude on their screens.

NBC News reported;

“On Wednesday at about 2 p.m., according to sources, a U-2 spy plane, the same type of aircraft that flew high-altitude spy missions over Russia 50 years ago, passed through the airspace monitored by the L.A. Air Route Traffic Control Center in Palmdale … The computers at the L.A. Center are programmed to keep commercial airliners and other aircraft from colliding with each other. The U-2 was flying at 60,000 feet, but the computers were attempting to keep it from colliding with planes that were actually miles beneath it.”

An Air Force spokesman from Air Combat Command headquarters confirmed to TheBlaze that the flight was a routine training mission “on file with the FAA.”

The Federal Aviation Administration would not comment directly on the U-2 flight, but a representative told TheBlaze the disruption was actually caused by a coding issue in a flight plan, but gave a less-than-detailed statement on the event.

“The FAA has put in place mitigation measures as engineers complete development of software changes. The FAA will fully analyze the event to resolve any underlying issues that contributed to the incident and prevent a reoccurrence,” the spokesperson said in an email.

The FAA said once their technicians isolated the glitch, “they fixed the issue so it won’t happen again.”

In a follow-up email the Air Force spokeswoman said, “the [Air Force] isn’t confirming there wasn’t a disruption; we’re confirming that the U-2 isn’t what caused the air traffic control system to fail.”

The U-2S is a single-seat, single-engine, high-altitude, near-space reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft that provides signals, imagery and electronic measurements and signature intelligence. According to the Air Force’s Air Combat Command description page, the U-2’s “long and narrow wings give the U-2 glider-like characteristics and allow it to quickly lift heavy sensor payloads to unmatched altitudes, keeping them there for extended periods of time.”

The FAA and the Air Force did not confirm specific altitudes of the flight in question, but the U-2 is routinely flown at altitudes over 70,000 feet; the pilot even has to wear a full pressure suit, similar to those worn by astronauts.

Lt. Col. Lars Hoffman reviews his checklist before flying the new U-2S Dragon Lady, Block 20, aircraft on its first flight from Osan Air Base, South Korea, on Tuesday, June 20. Colonel Hoffman is the 5th Reconnaissance Squadron commander. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrea Knudson)
Lt. Col. Lars Hoffman reviews his checklist before flying the new U-2S Dragon Lady, Block 20 in June, 2006. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Andrea Knudson)

The U-2 is capable of gathering a variety of imagery, including multi-spectral electro-optic, infrared, and synthetic aperture radar products which can be stored or sent to ground exploitation centers,” the ACC website explains. “In addition, it also supports high-resolution, broad-area synoptic coverage provided by the optical bar camera producing traditional film products which are developed and analyzed after landing.”

An ACC spokesman also told TheBlaze that when a military aircraft flies outside a military training area, “we file a flight plan with the FAA and we fly under FAA control.”

“We fly the same way everyone else does outside military training areas,” he said.

U-2 pilots are generally considered some of the best in the business because the aging aircraft is notoriously difficult to fly —  especially to land. The Air Force is looking into replacing the system with the unmanned Global Hawk

To step inside the reconnaissance plane with these near-space pilots, check out this clip (don’t miss 2:35, you can see how the pilots stay nourished in the air).

Then check out this video of landing attempts (and misses) with the long-winged U-2 Dragon Lady.

(H/T: Gawker)

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