back to article Did this airliner land in the North Sea? No. So what happened? El Reg probes flight tracker site oddity

An airliner that appeared to crash into the North Sea earlier this week in fact landed safely. Yet multiple flight tracker websites showed it spiralling into the ocean. Experts have explained to The Register what really happened. It began when Reg reader Ross noticed that a flight scheduled to land at Aberdeen on Tuesday 15 …

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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Obviously not GPS jamming

    Surely it was obviously not GPS jamming as there would have been dozens of other affected flights?

    Inertial navigation drift is a bit worrying - shouldn't routine maintenance pick this up?

    1. wolfetone
      Holmes

      Re: Obviously not GPS jamming

      Unless it was highly targeted in order to generate an article on El Reg?

    2. Jellied Eel Silver badge

      Re: Obviously not GPS jamming

      Inertial navigation drift is a bit worrying - shouldn't routine maintenance pick this up?

      Nah, drifting's fine, just don't kerb it too much. So being a tad curious, the aircraft seems to be operated by Jota Group, who do motorsports stuff. So going around in circles is normal, as long as it's roughly on the right track.

      But I guess it's one of those things. As long as the pilots know where they are, all is well. If they aren't sure, I guess they can always ask air traffic controllers, or hold a sign up in the window for the nearest Typhoon QRA. Or I guess it's one of those faults one detects when all the other navaids have failed, and it looks like you're set for landing in the North Sea. But I'd have hoped the avionics did some sanity checking so if the various navigation systems had a disagreement, there'd be some sort of warning, either to the pilots, or ground crew. I'd always thought that for an aircraft to be considered airworthy, especially carrying paying passengers, all it's systems were meant to be in order.

      1. swm Silver badge

        Re: Obviously not GPS jamming

        I once asked about the 747's inertial guidance and the pilot said that it would drift about a mile after travelling across the Atlantic. They also had 3 inertial guidance units just to be sure. This was over 25 years ago.

        1. Stork Silver badge

          Re: Obviously not GPS jamming

          I do hope and expect the pilots compare output from different systems, as well as to their dead reckoning.

          My dad told stories about that (he was master of a small cargo ship), going from UK to Iceland sometime in the 60es. Radar was broken, strong westerly winds, snow showers, and all they had of navigational info was the direction of a radio beacon in Norway. As they ship was empty, they knew they drifted sideways, so where exactly were they on the line? Then the snow cleared, and 8 miles ahead was Iceland! He used to say "a lot of things go well"

          1. big_D Silver badge

            Re: Obviously not GPS jamming

            My father went out to the Isle of Barra in a Sadler 25. No GPS, this was early 80s, just chart navigation and tidal charts. They got caught in a fog bank. Taking into account wind, tide etc. they carried on course for Barra and they ended up about 25 yards from the marker buoy they had aimed for.

            1. AdrianMontagu

              Re: Obviously not GPS jamming

              Good dead reckoning takes a lot of beating. Good to use if you get electrical failure.

        2. IWVC

          Re: Obviously not GPS jamming

          If I remember correctly the RAF fitted two ex BA VC10 INS systems in each of their Vulcans for the Falklands Black Buck missions as there was no other long range navigation systems available. On the first (according to the book Vulcan 607) they drifted and gave different positions. The problem then was which one was correct? Or were they both out? The target was a VERY small spot in a large ocean, and they were coming in at very low level to avoid radar detection. I believe they split the difference and fortunately (as it was a long way back if they missed) that worked.

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: Obviously not GPS jamming

            I wonder how they were supposed to carry out the original mission they were designed for?

            1. IWVC

              Re: Obviously not GPS jamming

              The V bombers were designed for, and intended to be used over occupied land with known navigational features, not miles of featureless Atlantic Ocean :)

              1. Grandad

                Re: Obviously not GPS jamming

                About 30 years ago I went to a talk about problems encountered during the Falklands war. The carrier based aircraft used INS type location systems as did the ships themselves. The planes had to be calibrated back at base in the UK which was fine normally as they were intended for a war in Europe. When they went on sorties in the South Atlantic and with poor visibility the drift on their inertial systems meant they had great difficulty finding the carrier. Not good when you are running low on fuel. Apparently the ship board systems could not talk to the planes to enable a reset of the gyros.

            2. bazza Silver badge

              Re: Obviously not GPS jamming

              The Vulcan used radar for navigation, using a set whose heritage went back to H2S in WW2 on Lancaster bombers. It was pretty good at paintball picture of the ground allowing the nav to plot position pretty well.

              Obviously not any good over an ocean.

              The same radar was used for bomb aiming, using offset navigation. The idea was that, even if the target was jamming the radar obscuring the view of the target, if you could still pick out features elsewhere the bombing “computer” could calculate where it was, where the target was, fly the aircraft on the bombing run and automatically drop the bombs. This worked in the Falklands war.

              1. IWVC

                Re: Obviously not GPS jamming

                The problem was that the Vulcan's radar emissions could be tracked long before the aircraft itself (which was flying at low level) so the search radar was off. I met one of the navigators that flew on Black Buck missions. They were briefed to switch radar on when passing over the task force fleet to ID themselves, the logic being that the task force were expecting them and the direction of approach would rule out Argentine aircraft. But as the Vulcan approached their warning systems lit up with numerous fire control radars from the fleet and as the navy had a long-established reputation from WW2 to shoot first and ask afterwards, the crew turned their own radar off and hoped they didn't collide with the superstructure of a ship. They had to make landfall at a precise location, hence the need for INS kit as they could only use their own radar NBC system for the actual bomb run.

                Later BB mission had Vulcan armed with Shrike (?) missiles to knock out Argentine defence radars and lurked around off the Falklands wanting to be painted by them as Shrike homed in on their emissions.

            3. Jonathan Richards 1

              INS drift

              I took a trip on an RAF VC10 to and from Brize Norton and Washington DC sometime around 1990. The co-pilot showed us the INS (ring laser gyroscope-based, IIRC) and said that the usual drift they experienced was measured in a few metres rather than miles after the journey Brize-Washington-Central America and back. There was a very precisely located point on the apron at Brize where the INS would be set before each mission, and checked on return.

        3. bazza Silver badge

          Re: Obviously not GPS jamming

          I once asked about the 747's inertial guidance and the pilot said that it would drift about a mile after travelling across the Atlantic. They also had 3 inertial guidance units just to be sure. This was over 25 years ago.

          Three were required because accurate navigation was a vital part of crossing an ocean. If you’re planning on landing with no more than half an hour extra fuel then it’s no good if you take a 31 minute detour thanks to wonky navigation.

    3. bazza Silver badge

      Re: Obviously not GPS jamming

      Inertial navigation drift is a bit worrying - shouldn't routine maintenance pick this up?

      It probably has but if the INS isn’t on the Minimum Equipment List for the aircraft then it can legally fly without it.

    4. RPF

      Re: Obviously not GPS jamming

      INS/IRS do drift, which is why modern aircraft don't rely on them entirely. The INS/IRS positions are compared regularly with DME/GPS fixing (and radar fixes on older military aircraft) to compute an accurate position. using Kalmann filtering techniques.

      Something like a 146/V-bomber would have been much more prone to errors, since the computation was minimal/non-existent.

  2. Paul Herber Silver badge

    onboard IRS

    I had an email from my onboard IRS the other week. Apparently I'm due a refund from my onboard IRS.

  3. NightFox

    "...revealed that US intelligence-gathering aircraft were switching transponder codes to pose as benign Malaysian flights off the coast of China"

    US military aircraft spoofing as civilian airliners to carry out hostile actions... what a responsible thing to do.

    1. fidodogbreath Silver badge

      Agreed. There's already a tragic history of accidentally shooting down commercial airliners. Masquerading military flights as civilian makes this even more likely.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Especially when they shoot down the only Korean 747 that wasn't overflying Russia on a spying mission

        1. bazza Silver badge

          Back in those days anything going over the USSR was treated as fair game by the USSR. These were considerably more paranoid times.

          There were no commercial air routes over Warsaw Pact countries at all for Western aircraft, which made getting to Japan from Europe a very long flight indeed.

          It’s interesting to see how it works these days. Russia hasn’t signed up to the freedom of navigation treaties. This means individual airlines have to negotiate directly with the Russian government for permission to fly over Russian territory. And they charge a lot of money. They make a lot of profit from flights between Europe and the Far East.

          Nowadays incompetency seems to be a major contributor to airliner shoot downs.

        2. Eclectic Man Bronze badge

          Conspiracy theory alert

          There is always the possibility that KAL007, was deliberately sent to excite the USSR's radar and check what happened when a civilian airliner 'accidentally' intruded into USSR airspace near Sakhalin Island. The whole thing was eavesdropped by US AWACS, right up to the firing of the missile which killed all on board.

          Another Korean Airlines plane was shot at by Soviet Migs when allegedly 'flying over the North Pole navigating by magnetic compass' it ended up over Murmansk. The pilot only landed after the cabin was pierced by several bullets from the Migs killing a couple of the passengers.

          It will not surprise you to know that I have never flown Korean Airlines.

      2. ThatOne Silver badge
        Devil

        > Masquerading military flights as civilian makes this even more likely.

        Win - win. That way you also get to accuse "the bad guys" of wantonly slaughtering innocent women and children!

        Remember, your competitors' bad reputation is something you have to build up yourself, stone by stone.

  4. fidodogbreath Silver badge

    "not everything on the internet is precisely accurate"

    Someone should let the QAnon folks know about this.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "not everything on the internet is precisely accurate"

      Oh, they're aware.

      Problem is, they think that websites for CNN, the New York Times, ABC, CBS, NBC, the "news" side (as opposed to the "opinion/entertainment" side) of Fox News, The Register, and any number of traditional news sources are the sketchy ones.

  5. Tempest
    WTF?

    "Canadian open-source intelligence bod Steffan Watkins, whose recent flight tracking research revealed that US intelligence-gathering aircraft were switching transponder codes to pose as benign Malaysian flights off the coast of China,"

    I live at 8,000 feet in the VietNam Central Highlands on the Laos border where we have a laser test range.

    Steffan Watkins observations might well explain misleading RF communications emanating from US marked aircraft that depart from Singapore's Changi Airport, then travel at low levels across to VN and then are forced to climb as they come over the Highlands.

    The paucity of flights at this time make any strange flight paths subject to scrutiny.

  6. werdsmith Silver badge

    These tracking websites depend on volunteers putting up receivers and connecting them o the internet. If the aircraft goes out of the range of active receivers, they disappear.

    If they disappear on Flightradar24 then have a look on Pinkfroot, or one of the other apps.

    1. Empty1

      Satelitte ADS-B

      From Flightradar24

      "Satellite-based ADS-B data now available to all Flightradar24 users"

      1. werdsmith Silver badge

        Re: Satelitte ADS-B

        I often see aircraft on pinkfroot that doesn’t show up on FR24. You need ACARS too.

        1. Don 9

          Re: Satelitte ADS-B

          I think the comment just meant it's nearly impossible to be out of ADS-B range as Iridium gen2 satellites maintain coverage across the entire earth.

  7. Marketing Hack Silver badge

    The plane was obviously transporting personnel to Nick Fury's sky carrier over the North Sea!

    Its OK S.H.I.E.L.D., we won't freak out if you admit this to us.

  8. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Re: remember: not everything on the internet is precisely accurate.

    Indeed. And do your very best to try and forget, or not forget and realise if/when you think you can handle such a situation, nothing on the internet is precisely accurate, but everything in reality only need to be close enough as to make no difference.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I blame the following, in this order...

    1. A Windows update.

    2. The cloud.

    3. Agile.

    4. Dido Harding.

    5. Gartner.

    6. systemd.

    1. Helstrom
      Thumb Up

      Re: I blame the following, in this order...

      What about DNS?

      1. Negative Charlie

        Re: I blame the following, in this order...

        It's never DNS.

        1. tfewster Silver badge

          Re: I blame the following, in this order...

          <obligatory>It's always DNS.</obligatory>

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: I blame the following, in this order...

            "Oooooh, no it isn't!"

            (It's nearly Panto season and this might be as close as get to Puss In Boots this year!)

    2. HildyJ Silver badge
      Alien

      Re: I blame the following, in this order...

      Clearly it was Aliens!

    3. macjules Silver badge

      Re: I blame the following, in this order...

      4. They were testing the Track 'n Trace and it Didn't Do It.

    4. Captain Obvious
      WTF?

      Re: I blame the following, in this order...

      Crikey! I skimmed and read your comment as Dildo Hardening

  10. BJC

    Spitfire NHS thanks tour

    Yesterday, there was a Spitfire flight over hospitals in Scotland, to thank the NHS. I was watching it on flightradar24 and it simply disappeared over Fife. Fortunately, it seems to have only been the flight tracker, with the plane completing the flight.

    https://www.flightradar24.com/data/flights/gprxi/#25869fca

  11. ivan itchybutt

    Doesn't add up...

    "Ross noticed that a flight scheduled to land at Aberdeen on Tuesday 15 September had not arrived."

    vs.

    "in reality it was making a routine, uneventful approach to Aberdeen's runway 16, around 70 miles north"

    So why did the flight not show as arrived?

    1. David 132 Silver badge
      Happy

      Re: Doesn't add up...

      They must think we’re stupid. WAKE UP, SHEEPLE!!one!

  12. Tom 7 Silver badge

    Is this an attemp to stop Scoland leaving the UK

    It wont know where to go!

    1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
      Trollface

      Re: Is this an attemp to stop Scoland leaving the UK

      The best Requiring Sargent for Scottish independence is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson

      https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/sep/18/welsh-and-scottish-leaders-johnson-hasnt-talked-to-us-for-months

      1. Eclectic Man Bronze badge

        Re: Is this an attemp to stop Scoland leaving the UK

        When Mayor of London, A B de P Johnson likened the GB economy to a Ryvita* with a blob of jam on London. He claimed the way to get more jam for the rest of the Ryvita* was not to spread it out, but to put even more jam on London so that it it sort of spread out of its own accord. I remember thinking that a more persuasive argument for Scottish independence would be hard to find.

        *Other inedibly dry comestibles are, I believe, available.

      2. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
        Unhappy

        Re: Is this an attemp to stop Scoland leaving the UK

        "Requiring Sargent"

        Bloody autocorrect. Just spotted it. It should of course be "Recruitment Sargent"

  13. DS999
    Black Helicopters

    Conspiracy theorists are going to love this

    I'll bet the QAnon nutters have already woven this into their complex web and will be claiming a witness who could blow the lid on the whole huge conspiracy was on that flight.

    1. low_resolution_foxxes Bronze badge

      Re: Conspiracy theorists are going to love this

      There are two plausible theories for this article.

      1) Intricately detailed "blind them with science" cover up for alien kidnapping

      2) We are a bunch of socially awkward dorks reading interesting dork-bork

      Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, my wife would probably bet on #2!

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