WASHINGTON - The U.S. air safety agency Monday confirmed that the air traffic control system surrounding Los Angeles was shut down last week after data from a U-2 spy plane’s flight plan scrambled the system’s software.
In a statement, the Federal Aviation Administration said its software at an air traffic control facility north of Los Angeles ‘experienced problems while processing a flight plan filed for a U-2 aircraft that operates at very high altitudes under visual flight rules.’  A backup system was employed Wednesday afternoon to help guide  flights already in the air , though hundreds of planes scheduled  to fly to and from regional airports in Southern California and  Las Vegas were affected, according to NBC News. The U-2 plane , a Cold War relic, flies at around 60,000 feet, but the FAA said a  computer misjudged its altitude and tried to reroute the plane to 10,000 feet. ‘The computer system interpreted the flight as a more typical low altitude operation, and began processing it for a route below  10,000 feet,’ the FAA said.
‘The extensive number of routings that would have been required to de-conflict the aircraft with lower-altitude flights,’ said the FAA, ‘used a large amount of available memory and interrupted the computer’s other flight-processing functions.’ The spy plane’s altitude and route apparently overloaded a computer system called ERAM, which generates display data for air-traffic controllers. Back-up computer systems also failed. The plane is the same type of aircraft that flew high-altitude spy missions over Russia (then the Soviet Union) 50 years ago and more recently Afghanistan.
The FAA said that it was 'investigating a flight-plan processing issue' at the L.A. Air Route Traffic Control Center. A U-2 plane was involved in an international diplomatic crisis in May 1960 when the Soviet Union shot down an American U-2 spy plane in Soviet air space and captured its pilot, Francis Gary Powers. The plane had taken off from Peshawar, and drew a sharp warning from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that Moscow might bomb the Pakistani city.