Computer Virus Linked (Loosely) To Airline Crash


Two years ago, a Spanair MD-82 crashed on takeoff at Madrid, killing 154 people and marking Spain’s worst air tragedy in 25 years; now, malicious code infecting a maintenance department computer has been implicated in the crash. To be clear, the code was not flown on the aircraft’s own systems and did not cause the crash. This specific crash could have been avoided regardless of the malware’s existence. But the discovery of malicious code introduced into an on-ground system operated by the airline’s maintenance department does suggests certain negative possibilities. One possible scenario is that the code slowed a program which, if properly maintained, would have flagged the aircraft for service and disallowed the takeoff because of a series of smaller problems already noted with the plane. That’s a lot of qualifiers. But the fact that the system was infected and didn’t flag the aircraft in this case closed one door on an opportunity to save the flight. It also suggests the urgency of proper computer maintenance throughout the entire airline system to assure safety of flight.

The Spanair jet reportedly had hosted two maintenance problems on the day prior to the crash and then aborted a takeoff just prior to the fatal takeoff run due to a faulty sensor. A maintenance tracking system used by the airline could have issued an alert based on those three anomalies and prevented the next takeoff attempt. But Spanish media reports say it took a full 24 hours for the last anomaly to enter the system. It is possible that delay was caused in part by the influence of bad code. No judgment should be passed until investigative bodies publish their final report. What we do know is that after the aborted takeoff, the crew taxied the aircraft for another attempt and attempted a second takeoff while the aircraft’s slats were improperly set. The crew didn’t notice the error and it seems no cockpit warnings sounded to make them aware.