Did trojan malware cause plane to crash? New article says absolutely not

Cover page of an update to the Spanair investigation

The headline chugged across blogs and the Twitterverse last week: A Trojan virus could have played a role in the August 2008 crash of a Spanish airliner. Now comes a new headline: Absolutely not.

Yesterday, a blogger on tech site ZDNet.com challenged the Trojan conclusion with sharp vigor. He contends that (at the least) people miscalculated the facts or (at the worst) reported them shoddily to attract viewers. Writer Ed Bott’s conclusion is that dots were incorrectly connected by reporters and readers made due to assumptions pulled from a poorly translated Spanish newspaper article, the original source

Well, what are the facts? Could corrupted software have brought down this aircraft?

First, as noted in the ZDNet.com post and elsewhere, the Spanair crash that killed 154 of the 172 people on board of a McDonnell Douglas DC-9-82 on takeoff two years ago resulted from fully retracted flaps and slats.

The takeoff warning system meant to notify the pilots of this error did not engage. Other testing of the power plant and avionics computers showed nothing else wrong.  However, investigators say the warning system was on the same relay as the ram temperature sensor that maintenance technicians disconnected.

The events prior to takeoff put into question by some whether an infected computer, or other human action by the mechanics, could have prevented the tragedy. [more]

The DC-82 landed on a leg from Barcelona at Madrid-Barajas Airport five hours prior to a scheduled 1 p.m. takeoff on the remainder of its leg to Las Palmas, Spain, with the same crew. While on the runway before takeoff on this latter leg, the crew radioed the tower, reporting a high ram air temperature.

The aircraft return to the garage. Maintenance technicians, several of whom now may be charged with manslaughter on matters stemming from the crash, performed work on the sensor, then again cleared it for flight.  

Again, so where does the computer virus aspect come in?

The aircraft experienced similar ram-temperature problems on two prior flights. Had technicians recorded those instances and this into a Spanair database (any three faults), it would have triggered an alarm and presumably grounded the DC-82.

The Trojan virus infected this computer in question, perhaps causing a delay in the info being entered. However, according to Bott’s research, company policy mandated that employees enter data 24 hours after an incident.  None of those three incidents were recorded on the allegedly infected PC until after the plane had crashed,” he writes.

Bott goes as far as to scorn the media outlets who reported the outright likelihood of malware causing the crash, even saying that the editors should return to journalism school and/or hang their heads in shame.

Read the entire ZDNet.com article here.

What do you make of this? Weigh in on our comments section about what role you think the maintenance techs or the infected computer may have had in the incident. If a virus didn’t cause this crash, could it contribute to a future one as avionics increasingly become dependent upon technology?