Did Wi-Fi interference cause Boeing 777 crash?

Did Wi-Fi interference cause Boeing 777 crash?

Summary: The recent BA038 crash-landing at Heathrow airport may have been caused by interference from wireless networks, which affected the aircraft's electronically controlled power and automated flight systems.

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The recent BA038 crash-landing at Heathrow airport may have been caused by interference from wireless networks, which affected the aircraft's electronically controlled power and automated flight systems.

Nina Anderson, author of 'Worse Than Global Warming -- Wave Technology' has speculated that interference from rogue radio frequencies could have influenced the aircraft's "brain", causing one or more of its electronically-controlled systems -- such as the auto-pilot, auto-throttle and power management -- to fail.

However avionics experts remain reserved about such claims, preferring to blame 'dirty fuel' from Beijing on both engines failing.

Initial reports from the UK Air Accidents Investigations Branch, which is investigating the crash, have confirmed that the auto-throttles did not respond as the aircraft approached landing.

Since the auto-throttle is controlled via the aircarft's electronic systems, wireless interference is one possible explanation, according to Paul Cousins, federal president of the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association (ALAEA). However, he said there are several other possibilities.

"As to why this occurred there are numerous possible reasons, ranging from electronics, or dirty fuel, to the engines themselves. At this time, obviously, I wouldn't like to speculate because the information is not at hand," Cousins told ZDNet.com.au.

Although Anderson's theory cannot be substantiated until investigations have concluded, Cousins -- who has worked on Boeing's 737-800, all the 737-series and the 767 -- said that besides the soon-to-be-launched Boeing 787, the 777 has the most electronically-controlled components of all commercial aircraft.

"On [the 777] there are a vast number of systems that are controlled electronically. When it was created that was the beginning of the electronics-age for that aircraft, so almost every system -- auto-pilot, auto-throttle, power management, and so on -- on that aircraft would have some electronics input," he said.

One system he believes would not be at fault in this instance -- despite recent concerns the Boeing 787's electronic-systems could be hacked through its passenger entertainment systems -- is the passenger entertainment system.

"This particular aircraft has been around for a number of years. If there were any hiccups in the passenger entertainment system such as Wi-Fi access or telephone-use onboard it would have been picked up by now," he said.

However ALAEA's federal secretary, Steven Purvinas, an avionics engineer with 20 years experience, contacted members of the organisation who had worked on the Boeing 777. He told ZDNet.com.au that of all Boeing's aircraft, the 777 is most likely to be affected by wireless or radio frequency interference.

"The 777 is far more electronically capable and reliant on it than its predecessors such as the Boeing 747. If wireless interference hasn't been ruled out as a possible cause, this aircraft would be a prime candidate for it," said Purvinas.

According to the members of the ALAEA who have worked on Boeing 777 aircraft, but declined to be interviewed, Boeing has taken extra measures to secure the systems and wiring that connect those systems.

The engineers claimed that although the 777 relies more on its electronic components, its wiring bundles are heavily shielded against radiation and stray currents that might affect the integrity of the system.

A more likely cause of the aircraft's throttle systems to fail at that stage of descent, according to Purvinas, is dirty fuel from Beijing, where it had refuelled before heading to London's Heathrow Airport.

"In this case, we're talking both engines carking it at same time. At that stage the aircraft is tilted at a certain altitude so when the fuel moves back into the tanks, it may expose the fuel pumps to water which is contained in the tanks," he said.

A small amount of water is not uncommon in fuel, Purvinas said.

"When you're putting in a hundred thousand kilos of fuel, there is a small component of water but if that all rises to the top of the fuel tank and is exposed to the fuel-pump intakes at same time, that is when you may have a problem at the same time on both engines," he said.

Topics: Networking, Travel Tech, Wi-Fi

Liam Tung

About Liam Tung

Liam Tung is an Australian business technology journalist living a few too many Swedish miles north of Stockholm for his liking. He gained a bachelors degree in economics and arts (cultural studies) at Sydney's Macquarie University, but hacked (without Norse or malicious code for that matter) his way into a career as an enterprise tech, security and telecommunications journalist with ZDNet Australia. These days Liam is a full time freelance technology journalist who writes for several publications.

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29 comments
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  • Another possiblity

    The plane allegedly flew over or very close to Prime Minister Gordon Brown's car as it came into the airport. It's certainly not beyond question that his convoy was using 'electronic jamming' equipment (to block remote detonation of roadside bombs etc) and that would be far stronger than any wifi signal.
    anonymous
  • Speculation?

    "As to why this occurred there are numerous possible reasons, ranging from electronics, or dirty fuel, to the engines themselves. At this time, obviously, I wouldn't like to speculate because the information is not at hand," Cousins told ZDNet.com.au.

    You just made three speculations so i think you do want to speculate
    anonymous
  • Did Wi-Fi interference cause Boeing 777 crash?

    ...here is a small component of water but if that all rises to the top of the fuel tank and is exposed to the fuel-pump intakes at same time...

    The person being quoted shows ignorance here. Jet fuel is lighter than water. Water sinks to the bottom of the tank, so if your fuel supply is contaminated, you are likely to find out about it sooner rather than later.
    anonymous
  • Reliable source?

    Did anyone think to check this Gail Anderson's credentials? Here's some other recent, um, theorising from her -
    http://www.authorsden.com/visit/viewarticle.asp?AuthorID=27589
    "In the book, Worse Than Global Warming: Wave Technology, we look at the power grid theorized to be in place during the time of the Ancients, and see potential for disrupting the Earth’s natural harmonics. Conversations with God author, Neal Donald says that humans once reached greater technology than we have now and made technology their God destroying itself and near everything on Earth. If their technology used the ionosphere as a conductor and the earth as a power source it could have ramped up their frequency devices and tickled Mother Earth into convulsion. If we correlate that to present-day technological misuse, we too may be causing an irreversible harmonic wave that can disrupt our planet’s pulse. Our wave technology could be the trigger for validating the 2012 prophecies. They may have simply been a warning not to follow in the footsteps of our technologically advanced ancestors and repeat the destruction of civilization."

    I think that's a cranking sound I hear...
    anonymous
  • Is this really bad journalism?

    Not only the headline is bad, because you could as well titled it "Did green men cause..?" but the content appears to be misleading.

    "He told ZDNet.com.au that of all Boeing's aircraft, the 777 is most likely to be affected by wireless or radio frequency interference."

    In that context it appears to say that the aircraft is very vulnerable to RFI, but one of the planes is going to be the most vulnerable the same way if you have 3 brothers of 2 meters (rougly 6 ft) 2.1 meters and 2.2 meters, the 2 meters one is going to be the shorter one. Is he short? No. Is the plane vulnerable? The story doesn't tell us but leads us to believe so.

    "A more likely cause of the aircraft's throttle systems to fail at that stage of descent, according to Purvinas, is dirty fuel"

    So the same avionics engineer that says that the 777 would be the most vulnerable of the group says that the most likely cause would be dirty fuel. Why does the story appear with a head line inviting people to think it was wi-fi?

    :(
    anonymous
  • Be more careful!

    The 'stuff' this article is throwing up in the air already made me think twice about reading it, then came this line

    "who has worked on Boeing's A330, 737-800, all the 737-series and the 767"

    How that major mistake could get past the journalist and editor is beyond me. So let me educate you, Boeing does not make the A330, that is an Airbus!! Then, you say "737-800, all the 737-series", umm, come on, didn't you learn to research something you are reporting on? The 737-800 is part of the 737-series, so why say it twice?

    So that line should have looked something more like this:

    "who has worked on the Airbus A330, Boeing's 737-series and the 767"
    anonymous
  • Disgrace

    The author should be embarassed to have written this complete load of rubbish. But the editor should be ashamed for having published it.

    Using a crack pot as your main headline source and littering the article with incorrect facts.

    It is my understanding that ZDNet Australias policy is to run sensational headlines to increase hits It seems this is to be achived by printing lies if needed.

    I would pull this article if I was ZDNet before you further damage CNET's reputation.
    anonymous
  • think of the readers

    i think the readers should be ashamed and embarassed about reading and commenting on this article. i thought it was zdnet policy to not have any readers and yet with this story, they have lots.

    bad zd. bad zd.
    anonymous
  • Interesting to Note!

    Although an aircraft has crashed (for an apparently unknown reason) no other craft have been grounded of the same family which indicates to me that they know what happened and they know they don't have to ground other aircraft because of a design fault and they DON'T want us to know what really happened.
    When they have to decided what they want to tell us the "investigation" will have something to report.
    anonymous
  • Of course

    They wouldnt want to get readers by quality journalism would they though?
    anonymous
  • good point

    when concorde went down the whole fleet was grounded.

    maybe someone has to die before they take it seriously?
    anonymous
  • Dirty fuel or just no fuel...

    One retired aircraft engineer I know thinks that cost cutting measures in airlines means they are choosing to fly with less reserves. Perhaps both engines stopped because there was no fuel left...
    anonymous
  • Wow

    What genius, yes the plane ran out of fuel and the pilots didnt notice till the last minute.... You sir are an aviation mastermind! Do you think the flight crew had a deathwish?
    anonymous
  • No, but the surround sound was awesome!

    No Wifi did not cause the crash, but the surround sound was like you were really there!

    Leave it to the investigators folks, they are pretty good at what they do.

    Unless of course the person using Wifi is a rich pratt whom you can sue the pants off to recoup the loss of this hull.
    anonymous
  • well

    Maybe the crew did know and were hoping to make it but didn't quite get there.
    anonymous
  • jesus...

    do you think these people are jokers or professional pilots? if there had been an issue with the fuel calculations (stronger headwinds etc), they would have diverted to another nearer airport well before... Its not like they would just wing it with the tank on red like you might do on the freeway!
    anonymous
  • jesus2

    Yeah, human error eh. That's so never going to be responsable. Whoever heard of pilot error causing a plane crash?

    Durrr.
    anonymous
  • OK

    If you really belive multiple BA pilots would make this kind of error then OK.

    I will wait for the real cause to be reported however.
    anonymous
  • Fuel is checked constantly

    Mate, the fuel quantity is checked about every half an hour. They check how much fuel they have on board, how much they planned to have at that point en-route and then compare the two. If there was any problem, they would have picked that up well before running on fumes just before the runway!

    The amount of planning that goes into one flight is more than you'll ever do in road trip planning in an entire decade! You start learning to manage your fuel from the first flight you make as a student pilot, fuel is expensive, don't waste it! In my training with the Cessna 172, I was taught to plan with at least 30 minutes of reserve fuel. Large airliners will plan for more because they don't have as large a choice of airfields as us bush pilots do ;)
    anonymous
  • Conspiracy

    Yeah, that's exactly what's going on. The investigators all know what's happened, but they want to keep it a secret. Apparently a British government department has some vested interest in the reputation of Boeing.

    When they find out what happened, we'll all hear about it.
    anonymous