Back to Squawk list
  • 48

Boeing 747s Still Use Floppy Disks to Get Critical Software Updates

It’s been approximately 12 million years since most of us last used a floppy disk, but apparently, the antiquated tech still plays a critical role in delivering software updates to Boeing’s 747-400 planes. The discovery comes courtesy of cybersecurity firm Pen Test Partners and was initially spotted by The Register. As part of this year’s virtual DEF CON hacker conference, Pen Test Partners showed off a video walkthrough of a British Airways 747 after the airline decided to retire its entire… ( More...

Sort type: [Top] [Newest]

George Lane 51
People seem surprised that an aircraft designed in the 1980s uses technology from the 1980s.
sparkie624 5
Exactly... Why upgrade or Fix what is not broken... The USB is still takes about 30 minutes. It is not the speed or the technology of how fast something can push the data in, but how fast it can take it. In experience, using Floppy or USB has 1 big difference... Swappy Floppy Disks or waiting on a USB... the only advantage I see over USB is that you can start 1 and go to the next, come back 30 minutes later. Surprisingly, Both take about the same amount of time to update. USB means I can do something else, vs waiting to swap to the next disk, and that is the only advantage.
Michel B. 4
if your computer takes 30min to DL 1.44mb from a USB stick. well you really get scammed.

Downloading from a USB is way faster than a floppy whatever the size of data.
Robert Cowling -1
Generally, yes. But it depends on what the system is doing during the download time. If it's saving old configurations, and wiping memory, etc, it can take a bit of time, depending on how long that whole process takes. I had a Windows Server update take over 4 hours. Microsoft said, when I called, 'Yeah, that one can take a while to install, depending on what you use the server for'. FOUR HOURS? That is an eternity when you're waiting for it to finish during a work day. Yikes...
James Simms 0
Had to purchase a new laptop a couple of years ago. Could only afford an AMD chip machine instead of an Intel chip machine. Some days I can start it up, go use the facilities, & still not ready to go when I return
matt jensen 7
floppies can't be hacked or given a virus = unless it was already on the disk. I still use my 8.75" disks
w2bsa 6
Wow, you still have a working drive to read and write those?? From an old retired IT guy, that’s awesome!!
matt jensen 5
Also have an IBM Selectric typewritter
James Simms 1
I have my late Father’s Royal manual typewriter he used in college during the early-mid 50’s
Jorge Romo 1
Good for you... those are the best not the S..t the sell us today !!!
Bernie20910 2
Really? An 8-3/4" drive? Must have come from one of those flying saucers out in Area 51 then because the closest we got to that with standard disks was 8" Now we did move on to 5-3/4" after those, so maybe that's confusing you. As to your "can't be hacked or given a virus" claim, lordy, that was a good laugh. I haven't chuckled like that in ages!
joel wiley 3
Back when 8" floppies were used, a virus was too big to fit on one.
lynx318 1
Floppies can be easily accidentally erased. Also over 22,000x 1.44mb floppys equal 1x 32gb flash drive. Storage is a pain!
F. M. 2
If you slide the 3.5 inch diskettes' built-in read-only tab into place, it can only be erased by coming too close to magnet. I would hope all diskettes sent to the mechanics would have that tab already set to read-only.
More than that. The chuck plate can become detached from the mylar disk part. I found a whole box of vintage (NOS) floppy disks. The kind that came in the translucent colors, remember. I stuck one into a portable drive I still have, and got nothing. Weird, huh. I ejected it, and put int he next one. Same story. As if there was no disk in the drive. I tried another one, and nope, same story. How could a whole box of those cool looking disks be bad, and bad in what way? I opened the shutter on one, and started trying to spin the chuck plate. Yeah, spun free. OMG!!! The glue went bad.

I started thinking of all the people that had precious pictures, and other stuff on those, and all the installation disks that were now, likely bad. Wow...

PLUS! If you get anything in between the disk and the fabric liner inside the plastic case (many had fabric, some used plastic sheets) it's being scrubbed clean over a short amount of time.

I'm not surprised they used floppies. Doing a change would have likely been a long drawn out process for testing and approval, subject to dust/dirt/grime, and floppies were working. Switching to wifi would have been problematic on so many levels too. Some planes, I understand, have/had thermal printers installed for data 'on the go' as well. No computer screens to scroll like I'm sure they have now.

But what do the 800's use for updates?
lynx318 0
Magnetic erasure is what I was referring to and as for the tab, heard of sticky tape, works well.
SkyAware123 -6
neither can usb sticks or dvd's or whatever medium you use in the future.
What an idiotic comment.
CDs, DVDs, Blu-Rays, tapes and other 'true' media cannot be hacked, but USB sticks actually have a controller with it's own firmware storage that could be hacked to load a virus on it - even if there is nothing on the 'storage' part of the memory. And yes, viruses like that actually exist out there. A USB stick is basically both media and reading/writing device for it all in one. Using antiquated technology is not the best way to safeguard your systems, IMHO, but don't assume people do not know what they are talking about.
Paul Rentz 2
until you get the dreaded "READ ERROR" on disk #20...
ynot ssor 1
@ThinkingGuy stated "People seem surprised that an aircraft designed in the 1980s uses technology from the 1980s." It should still be using Loran navigation?
F. M. 2
Correct me if I'm wrong, but the 747 in general (maybe not the model 400 specifically) was designed in the 1960's for a 1969 debut.
Nor were they using floppy disks to load nav data in 1969. In 1969 pilots still had to know how to navigate.

The most advanced Flight Management Systems were installed in the Apollo spacecraft at the time. And even for them, the sextant was still their primary source of positioning data.
microwalda 22
Old technology is not a synonym of bad technology
Good point, microwalda. This is especially true in safety-critical systems. When a system meets its requirements and is well seasoned, leave it alone.
James Simms 2
Didn’t the old Soviet Union use tube technology in their aircraft while the US & others went to solid state transistors? It was my understanding they felt tube technology was the way to go if EMP from a nuke fried everyone else’s up to date technology
And old cars had phonographs in the dashboard. You inserted a full size LP record in a wide slot. It didn't make it 'cutting edge'. It was old junk. *shrug*
Russ Brown 2
I was going to earn BIG money as a key punch operator in 1962.
ynot ssor 2
@Russ Brown stated "I was going to earn BIG money as a key punch operator in 1962." Many people earned an honest living doing so.
Russ Brown 2
Don't drop the deck! A-h-h-h-h-hh!
F. M. 1
Didn't you sequence the cards in columns 73-80 like all good programmers were told to do? That way, if you dropped them, you could take them to an IBM 704 card sorter and have them put back in the correct sequence. :-)
Russ Brown 1
Coat hanger sorter.
Don Whyte 1
In tech school in the 1960's we used IBM cards ("Hollerith cards") in our programming classes. One of our classmates would sneak a card into the middle of someone's program deck and when got your program printout there would be a line "there is but one God and Mohammed is his prophet" WTH??
F. M. 1
My college 20-hours/week work/study job was keypunching information for the college's admissions/records department. I learned what drum cards were and how to set them up. Not exactly a "resume enhancer", but it did help me hone my basic typing skills so that when I gained access to a TTY machine, I was able to program a lot quicker because of my better-than-average typing skills.
And I worked at a big-ten university as a programmer. They were about to dump the old rubber cement paper student records that were housed in a massive basement of the admin building. At the beginning of every term, the 'computer' spit out the classes you needed, and you had to go pick up your cards, then lay them out and see if the schedule made any sense, and often it didn't. (Get across campus in 5 minutes for a class, only to be on the other side in 5 for the next one? Or not get that last class you needed to graduate) So, after you pulled your cards, and realized the crap you were dealt, you had to go to 'the pit', and like in the stock market, bid for classes you needed and the times you needed them in. If you were lucky, you got what you wanted. If you were unlucky, the one class you need for your Masters degree, which is only offered once a year, would be full, and no one wanted to change for anything you were dealt. Often, I heard, some people would link up with others and try to pull off a 3 or 4 person trade, it was that desperate.

And, yes, transcript requests were copies of the rubber cement glued papers in your file. Hopefully not many of the classes and grades fell off, which happened rather frequently...

On vacation once, I ran into someone who went there, and they started regaling everyone about what an experience it was to be in 'the pit', and have someone with the class you need, but you have nothing they want, and they won't trade. I said, 'Oh, that was xxxx university. Well, I'm on a project to kill the pit.' They came over and hugged me. Odd, but...
Walter Meier 8
I was amused by the "poor engineer" bit. This is obviously someone who's never worked on airplanes. In the ten years I did so, I loved getting this job. It's clean, you're out of the cold wind and rain, and you get to sit on a comfortable chair while the data is loading. What could be better?
Nolivfr 8
"proven technology"
sparkie624 6
Why is this news? I mean really.... The Floppy Disks are still used in all older boeing systems, even though most of those planes are no long flying in the US. Most of the CRJ-200's still use floppy even though many have been upgraded to USB. I have upgraded many of the past couple of Decades.
idgie57 7
Consider the source... I have a feeling that the author can barely suppress her eye rolls and giggles when her Grampa makes a call on his flip phone.
James Willich 0
Can anything from Gizmodo even be considered journalism? Their articles always read like 3rd-grade garbage.
Russ Brown 4
The world still runs on FORTRAN.
SkyAware123 8
More like COBOL. You'd be surprised how much COBOL is still out there and runs.
ynot ssor 2
@Russ Brown stated "The world still runs on FORTRAN." v4, to be more exact. The ORNL (Oak Ridge National Laboratories) created a very great many routines for mathematical processing that are still used in many C[++] programs.
ftrinh 2
This is so true! I just worked on a project to re-write a FORTRAN program from the 70's into MATLAB...the next article this author will write, is about how we still use WINDOWS XP!
Scott Maynard 2
I love Windows XP! I find it ideal with Lotus 123.
F. M. 1
And where's the love for PL/1, which supposedly combined the best of FORTRAN and COBOL? :-)
blt56 4
WhAt do you call an Olympic athlete that is also a computer programmer? A floppy discus thrower.
F. M. 1
DASD one of the worst jokes I ever heard. :-)
jaymeinen 4
The early 737-300s were updated but TAPE DRIVES. They were all updated to 3 1/2 inch floppy drives.
sparkie624 4
Advanced 200's as well that had FMS, but back then, not many had FMS... I have done many tape updates... UGH.. that was pretty bad.... Floppy was a HUGE improvement over tape.
padrooga23 7
The Russians deliberately kept many key systems on Vacuum tubes rather than transisters, presumeably because they would not be affected by an EMP.
Larry White 3
Right on...I get my vac. tubes from Germany or Russia for my ham, cb base and guitar amps. Can't beat 'em for tone, etc. Not 'black market' that I know of btw. Get them through a wholesaler, Mouser Electrical in Mansfield, TX. STAY HEALTHY ALL. Temp. in Arlington Tx. now is 100F and CAVU.
bobhicks48 3
Oh 3.5” floppy. At least it’s not a 8” drive. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I believe the 747-800 was upgraded.
F. M. 1
Call me a Luddite, but I always had a problem calling the 3.5 inch diskettes "floppies". To me, the 5.25 inch an 8 inch ones were the true floppies because they at least would bend. A 3.5 inch diskette is "firmie", not a "floppy" due to its hard plastic shell.
joel wiley 2
But any paper tissue for your nose is a Kleenix.
Sometimes the name is a label rather than a description.
SkyAware123 1
True. The equipment uses it can't use anything with more capacity anyways since the software to be updated is also small. The only issue I can see is if floppies are no longer available. They don't last forever and probably haven't been made in quite a while. Even sitting on a shelf, new , they won't last.
Randy Medors 2
Untrue, 3.5" diskettes are still available. A simple Google or Amazon search will tell you that. However they are much more expensive than they used to be back in the day.
flyincj 3
Clickbait. Linked site is full of ads. Numerous paychecks are being handed out because of an airworthy aircraft.
Mark Van Raam 3
ICBM systems still use floppies for updates. Not connected to the internet. Some US Navy ships still use Windows XP and pay Microsoft for XP support!!
stardog01 3
None of the comments so far have mentioned the video in that article. Th video is tour of some behind-the-scenes areas of the 747. They show the avionics bay below the lower passenger deck, and it looks just like a server room. The video also discusses the technology of the electronics, etc. It's fascinating.
Jim Ward 3
Auto Sketch On 5 1/4 floppies.
Running windows 3.1. Soundbalster 16.
Old technology that sounds good.
John Goulet 3
I recall standing inside the very first 747 fuselage shell at the still-under-construction hangar at Paine Field, in Everett, WA, in 1967 and saying to myself: 'you could play a football game inside here'. It's exciting to know that I played a small part in this historic series of aircraft.
birdbrainz 6
Yawn. What else is new? Wasn't it Al Qaeda that was using floppy disks post 9/11 to communicate, thus making it extremely difficult for us to eavesdrop? If it ain't broke...
SkyAware123 3
Don't see how a floppy disk is harder to 'eavesdrop' on than a usb stick.
"Sorry for the delay folks, but the plane blue screened, and we have to reboot. The diskette has a bad sector, so we are waiting for someone from IT to copy the disk image off the internet, write it onto a fresh disk, and bring it out to us. We shouldn't be waiting very long. We hope..."
Mike Boote 2
So what?
The DEFCON video is very interesting. See inside the guts of a 747, see the 'avionics bay', and other areas, and a conversation on hacking planes, etc. Good stuff. Geeky stuff...
George Leaf 2
How much does it cost to upgrade the old aircraft to fancy new. Quote a certain a General to the Boeing rep bidding $21 million for the upgrade. “Every fighter pilot wants to drive a Ferrari, with Ferrari Instruments, and Ferrari Performance. This is the old farm truck. It hauls bombs. It does not need Ferrari instruments.” It works. It’s a truck, whether it hauls pallet freight or SLF.
w2bsa 4
Folks, these are not floppy disks. They are called diskettes. Floppies are 8 inches in diameter and had a black stiff paper covering. These were definitely used in the 1980s and early 1990s. Earlier on we were using magnetic tape on big reels. I’m a retired IT guy and I remember it all. Those days were fun.
stardog01 5
That's correct. Always bugs me when people call the 3.5" disks "floppies." Although true floppies can also be 5.25".
Open a 3-1/2" case and you will find a flexible, floppy medium.
lynx318 1
Floppy refers to the actual disc inside it's stiff or flexible sleeve, no matter the size.
Been at it since ‘81, never called them diskettes. To feminine for me...can I have your diskette dear?
SkyAware123 -3
WRONG. The 3.5 disks are still floppy disks. HAving a hard plastic cover is just protection for the inside disk which is.... a floppy disk. Even the old 8 inch disks were called diskettes. "IT guy"
James Willich 3
We called the 3.5s diskettes because they were smaller than the 5.25s. They were all floppies, and they were all disks, but only the smallest were diskettes.
An anecdote from a few years ago. I was in a govt-taught commo class and the topic of media came up, mostly focused on magnetic media. The instructor related a story of visiting a remote commo site and asking for their recovery media. The 5-1/4" floppy disk was retrieved from its home, held, conveniently, to the side of a metal bookcase with a magnet. Had been and continued to work fine. Arguably, a workhorse, despite accepted practices.
John D 3
linbb 3
Wow nothing else to do will be glad when all the trolls find another hobby.
butylkus 2
Hehe... Surprised? Strange to me. Did you seen 286 IBM PC without 5i drive? I saw only with 3.5i, but still floppy :) Is there somethong strange that old plains use old tech?
BTW - hard copy secured more than internet, for example, you may send disks with cryptokey and data separately any way you like (taxi, post, train, etc) and it never be hacked. Even sticker with password at monitor box much more secure than internet with strongest encryption.
matt jensen 2
the www is far less secure now that it was when created
butylkus 1
That is what I exactly said. FDDs are much better than internet or flashdrives, but worse than cd-dvds (they haven't term of data degradation).
SkyAware123 -1
haha. HAve you dealt with the mail lately ? It gets lost.
matt jensen 0
Mail is secondary to Amazon deliveries now
Tariq Aziz 2
While it's understood and accepted that it's an 80s aircraft hence the then technology but if a simple thing of data exchange procedure has been improvised since then, offers significant advantages of time saving amongst others, it says well to upgrade.

For the same argument of 80s, haven't any other part of the same aircraft been changed, read upgraded, to a newer or more advanced kind over the years? I'm sure the answer is Yes.

Hence, my above expectation holds.
Mark Kortum 2
The writer does not know what a real floppy disk is, apparently.
SkyAware123 1
Looks like you don't;
lynx318 1
padrooga23 2
Not to mention that this plane doesn't fight the pilots for control.
Ron Bouknight 1
Keep in mind that until recently, the FAA systems still used equipment with vacuum tubes. "Whatever works" may apply, but at some point, it should be "Whatever to keep it working".
Terry Briggs 2
Nothing wrong with vacuum tubes. The first transatlantic telephone cable installed by AT&T in the mid 1950s used vacuum tube repeating amplifiers, even though AT&T had just successfully developed the first transistor. These amplifiers were inline with the cable and laid on the ocean floor, and were subject to adverse conditions. They wanted proven reliability, which they got.
Ron Bouknight 4
Agreed. My dad was a radar tech in WWII. He could fix anything electronic as long as it had vacuum tubes and a schematic. I can't tell you how many trips we took to the drug store to test the tubes. Hard to imagine now that the tube testing equipment and replacement tubes were available at most drug and grocery stores back then.
Terry Briggs 2
My dad was handy too and did his own TV & radio troubleshooting & repair work so his sons were familiar with vacuum tubes. I built a Knight-kit 6 band radio with him. He had his own tube tester & also alerted us to the dangers of electolytic capacitors.
Don Whyte 1
After several years of not working in the electronics industry I went back to it. One day I charged an electroytic but got the polarity wrong. BANG! Spent some time cleaning electrolyte off the front of my test equipment. Hoo boy.
F. M. 1
You want ancient technology?

Walk into your local Costco and look at the screen of the computer that handles special requests.

It's a "Window-ized" version of an old mainframe screen originally designed for the 4-color IBM 3279 terminal.
joel wiley 1
And running CICS apps written in COBOL.
F. M. 1
When Microsoft stopped formal support for Windows XP, large banks begged them to keep supporting it (privately, for a huge fee) because many ATM machines still run Windows XP. Keep that in mind the next time you withdraw cash from one of them. :-)
Chris Cotter 1
My A&P buddy told me that the newest jets have been upgraded to 9-pin serial. The computers are still either 8 or 16-bit computers though, roughly the same power as a super nintendo.
deb4747 1
floppies, orange micro, 5mb brick sized hard drives, irma boards, novell and then altair~where have all the good times gone?
Gail Morris 1
Here I was thinking you were talking about the real floppy disk! You remember the 6 1/2 “ square actually floppy disk.
joel wiley 1
'floppy disk' used as a label rather than a description.
Got smiles because of this news ))
Tim Payne 1
The website was all I needed to know to determine what I was about to read was going to be millennial claptrap.
Craig Good 0
It's adorable how people think that aviation = advanced.

This isn't nearly as bad as how weather and NOTAMS are still living in the days of 300 baud.
Bill Butler 1
Hey. the NOTAMS used to hang on a clipboard in the planning room....
ftrinh 0
The hardware and software re-certification effort and cost for something as simple as updating the boot loader and media type, is astronomical in terms of avionics equipment. If it ain't broke, don't fix it...look at it as a security feature...not everyone has access to this antiquated technology.
SkyAware123 1
bullshit. 3.5 inch drives are collecting dust in just about any geeks office closets. I've got some.
ftrinh 1
Yes no shit, 3.5 inch disks are laying around....but you don't have the DATA LOADER used with it to program the aircraft equipment...or maybe you do since you're a geek.
Upstream is my story of the glue holding the chuck plate on the mylar disk material. It's a thing, and surprised me...
F. M. 1
I just sent my MS-DOS 3.1 installation diskettes along with my Microsoft Access 1.0 diskettes (all 16 of them) to the recycle bin at the local Best Buy.
Jim Ward 0
Call me old school. But I still use 5 1/4 floppies.
Ken Fedder -2
Floppies are getting hard to com-bye, just one more reason to put the 747 to bed. It was a great plan...
Tom Bruce -3
and the end in sight for the 747
John Wool -1
I mean a lot of planes use floppy’s for their monthly nav data loads depending on the hardware you’re using.


Don't have an account? Register now (free) for customized features, flight alerts, and more!
Did you know that FlightAware flight tracking is supported by advertising?
You can help us keep FlightAware free by allowing ads from We work hard to keep our advertising relevant and unobtrusive to create a great experience. It's quick and easy to whitelist ads on FlightAware or please consider our premium accounts.