Those of us who’ve been around and using technology for a while remember the era of floppy disks. You know, they look like “save” icons, but they were real pieces of plastic with magnetic media inside that stored a trivially small amount of data. You might not use floppies anymore, but some industries are stuck with the technology of yesteryear—for example, airlines. British Airways recently retired its fleet of 747s, giving us a chance to see how its floppy-based software update system works. It’s a real blast from the past.
The Boeing 747-400 aircraft first entered service in the late 1980s when 3.5-inch floppy disks were still cutting edge with a whopping 1.44 MB of formatted storage space. These planes cost millions of dollars, but upgrading systems is a tricky business in aircraft. The original avionics computer still works, so British Airways never bothered to replace them in its planes.
The 747 has been a major part of British Airway’s fleet over the years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically reduced the demand for air travel — retiring these older planes made sense. Security firm Pen Test Partners had a chance to poke around one of the still-functional aircraft. As part of the virtual DEF CON 28 event, you can take a tour of a recently retired 747-400. The entire 10-minute walkthrough is worth a watch, but you can skip right to the floppy disk bit at about 7:45 if you wish.
The avionics loader is in the cockpit under a protective panel. According to Pen Test, the software needed an update every 28 days so the plane would know the current status of all airports, flight paths, runways, and so on. Since floppy disks store so little data, a typical update package would be spread over eight disks. An engineer had to visit each plane on a monthly basis to load all those disks. British Airways isn’t done with floppies, either. The airline still has many 737 planes with a similar diskette-based avionics system.
Modern aircraft have remotely configurable avionics systems that are much less tedious to update. However, they also require enhanced security, particularly in planes that have networked infotainment devices in every seat. Researchers have long probed such systems for vulnerabilities that would provide access to important aircraft systems, but no one has managed to do more than break their own in-seat system. Maybe a few corrupted floppy disks would do the trick?
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