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Lost Radio Contact Leaves Pilots On Their Own

Communications error wreaks havoc in the Los Angeles air control system

5 min read

It was an air traffic controller's worst nightmare. Without warning, on Tuesday, 14 September, at about 5 p.m. Pacific daylight time, air traffic controllers lost voice contact with 400 airplanes they were tracking over the southwestern United States. Planes started to head toward one another, something that occurs routinely under careful control of the air traffic controllers, who keep airplanes safely apart. But now the controllers had no way to redirect the planes' courses.

"You could see airplanes getting awfully close but you're powerless. You can do nothing about it," said Hamid Ghaffari, an air traffic controller at the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center in Palmdale, Calif., where the crisis occurred. The center is responsible for airplanes flying above 13 000 feet (4000 meters) in 460 000 square kilometers of airspace over Southern California and parts of Arizona, Nevada, and Utah, including the busy McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nev.

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Top Tech 2022: A Special Report

Preview two dozen exciting technical developments that are in the pipeline for the coming year

1 min read
Photo of the lower part of a rocket in an engineering bay.

NASA’s Space Launch System will carry Orion to the moon.

Frank Michaux/NASA

At the start of each year, IEEE Spectrum attempts to predict the future. It can be tricky, but we do our best, filling the January issue with a couple of dozen reports, short and long, about developments the editors expect to make news in the coming year.

This isn’t hard to do when the project has been in the works for a long time and is progressing on schedule—the coming first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, for example. For other stories, we must go farther out on a limb. A case in point: the description of a hardware wallet for Bitcoin that the company formerly known as Square (which recently changed its name to Block) is developing but won’t officially comment on. One thing we can predict with confidence, though, is that Spectrum readers, familiar with the vicissitudes of technical development work, will understand if some of these projects don’t, in fact, pan out. That’s still okay.

Engineering, like life, is as much about the journey as the destination.

See all stories from our Top Tech 2022 Special Report

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