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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Plane Hacking... The New Form of Highjacking?

Last week Keith Mendoza sent me a question about automation and the ability of an application to take over the plane.

He said...

"I'm actually writing a blog regarding the news that came out recently where a information security researcher claims that he's developed an android app to hack an airplane. 
He basically claims that by sending a message through ACARS that he can send a modified flight plan directly to the FMS and take the plane wherever he is. As a private pilot and someone who used to work as a software engineer in the IFE industry I don't buy it one bit.

My assumption is that dispatch is able to send modified flight plans via ACARS, and it's possible for that information to be sent directly to the FMS without the pilot having to re-enter the information from the ACARS screen to the FMS; however, that is reviewed and approved before it goes to the FMS. Is this assumption correct?"
To Read the full article click HERE
MY ANSWER: I agree with you. I don't buy it.

But as you know, I believe in the "Never say Never" concept. The concept of someone hacking a plane as we transition into the NEXT GEN is a plot of another aviation thriller. More likely someone would break into a ground facility, and attempt to take control that way. But as long as pilots remember how to fly their planes, whatever data is sent to them can be denied, or disconnected.
We are safe. Pilots have complete control of the navigation in our planes. The only way for data to go into the Flight Control Unit on my plane is for the pilot to set it. On newer aircraft, such as the 787, data can be sent directly to the Mode Control Panel, but the pilots have the ability to accept or reject it.
Does someone have the ability to send data to a plane? I hope Boeing and Airbus have built protections to prevent just that, and I will assume they did. But brilliant (and corrupt) minds are everywhere. So the question is... if someone has the ability to send data to our aircraft, can they take control? 


We the pilots can kick off the automation and fly the planes without it. We are kind of like superman that way. Seriously, the most automated plane today can be hand flown without the autopilot.

What do you think? Is this going to be a problem in the future?

For all you who would like to read more, check out Keith's Blog, Home+Power


  1. Only if they remove the (wo)man from the cockpit :)

    1. Good Answer! Lol. Last week we flew a no man cockpit.

  2. I can see how someone unfamiliar with a FMS could cook up in their small minds a scenario where this could be possible. But there are redundant safety's built into the system and the industry itself that insure this type of breach doesn't happen. It may be an original thought to someone desperate to commit mass murder but rest assured this very scenario was entertained by the system creator's. Without compromising safety by divulging trade secrets it is a fact that this type of aircraft take over could never happen. But for those of you who can't see behind the reinforced cockpit door, remember no matter what the level of automation the aircraft has there is still a switch that disconnects the auto flight system and our airlines spend a lot of money making sure we know what to do when that switch is turned off.

    1. Thank you for a great comment! The things stories are made of for sure. Not until they transition our planes to drones... this won't happen. Another reason to keep pilots in our planes.

  3. This is exactly why humans need to be flying planes. And I am sure there are dangerous minds out there trying to develop systems to do so much more than this. And these are very scary thoughts however I feel safe knowing that companies do all they can to prevent this and out trump those who wish to infiltrate the systems.

    On a side note I remember seeing a smartphone app also for iPod where it syncs to a PC based Level D simulator. As information would be entered into a person's FMC/S, radios, it would in real time follow suit. So rest assured this will not make its way out of the virtual world.

    Thank you for this great post!


    1. Jeremy, I couldn't agree more!! We must keep pilots in the flight deck! And now I know where this came from. Somebody got confused between simulated flight on the ground, to an airplane. The manifested their game on the real world. It happens.
      Thanks for the comment!

  4. A problem in the future? Unfortunately only time has the answer. However I stick with Ms Petitt's words: "We the pilots can kick off the automation and fly the planes without it."

    Now, if that's the case that hypothetical app wouldn't need some kind of "router" or something? Honestly I don't see it possible. Current aircraft are practically winged computers so I don't see them that vulnerable.

    Greetings :)

    1. I suspect the only way this would be a problem in the future is if they remove pilots from the flight deck. We won't let this happen.
      Apparently they have this app for desktop simulators.... for planes? Nope. Not buying it.

  5. Even if he could upload a flight plan as claimed (and it was only done on a PC, not an airplane), it only goes into the secondary flight plan of the FMS - Never replaces the active flight plan. The pilots would then have to explicitly activate that new uploaded plan.
    So, it's a bit like saying he could hold his breath if he got to the moon. He might be able to get there, but once there, nah, that isn't going to work.

    1. I was hoping you would chime in. This is the reason we must keep pilots in the plane. The day they design the airliners like a drone... and bypass the human on the plane aspect, is the day we will be in trouble.
      But planes today... glad it can't happen. You know there is something entertaining in the works already with this happening. Comedy...and a thriller.
      Love the will hold my breath until I fly again. (Not)

  6. Since a modification of the flight plan sent "in" from an outside source needs to be manually accepted before it will change anything, this scenario is rather unlikely. It already takes a person to push to accept. Just because a plane can fly by itself, it does not always make it safe to do so. Until they take drivers out of cars, they will not take them from planes either. Who would fly on a plane with no pilot? Not me!

    1. And there is the answer to that! Hopefully passengers world wide will agree with you. Now... what about one pilot? What do you think?


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