New FAA Files Reveal Private Aircrafts Affected by U.S. Military’s GPS Jamming During Tests

Numerous incidents of GPS interference have been reported in areas near military test bases.

(Image from Pixabay.)

(Stock photo.)

A number of commercial pilots have been experiencing GPS interference while flying near the U.S. Army’s military testing sites across the country. There have been 90 reports of cases of GPS jamming filed on NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) over the past eight years—most occurring between 2019 and 2020—detailing abrupt signal disruptions that have almost resulted in serious accidents. The ASRS has remained an anonymous forum for pilots to log flight incidents and safety advice.

According to recently revealed data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), similar incidents occurred even more frequently sometime around 2017 and 2018, with hundreds of aircraft experiencing loss of GPS reception when near military test bases. In March 2018, Los Angeles air traffic controllers received reports from 21 aircraft that encountered issues with their GPS, five of which ended up flying off course, while the rest had to seek assistance from air traffic control. In August 2018, a passenger aircraft nearly crashed into a mountain due to GPS jamming from a military facility in Idaho.

“Loss of life can happen because air traffic control and a flight crew believe their equipment are working as intended, but are in fact leading them into the side of the mountain,” shared the air traffic controller who intercepted the aircraft. “Had [we] not noticed, that flight crew and the passengers would be dead. I have no doubt.”

Incidences of GPS interference reported by commercial and private aviation in 2017. (Image courtesy of FAA.)

Incidences of GPS interference reported by commercial and private aviation in 2017. (Image courtesy of FAA.)

Overall, approximately 173 incidents occurred over six months in 2017, with 60 more arising in early 2018. Aircrafts that were affected ranged from medevacs, private jets, pet rescue shuttles, and passenger planes. The areas most affected by GPS interference are Southern California, southern Nevada, southwestern Utah, western Arizona, and parts of the Pacific Ocean.

According to the U.S. military, GPS jamming is one of the defense methods it uses to protect its bases as well as the troops stationed there. GPS systems are extremely vulnerable to tampering and attacks. Chinese vessels have described what is called “spoofing,” where false GPS coordinates and positions are fed to navigation receivers. According to the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), 50 percent of casualties and collisions at sea are due to navigational mishaps. GPS jammers manage to prevent against these kinds of attacks, and they are also commonly used in places such as Norway, Finland, and the eastern Mediterranean.

However, the military also admitted back in a 2013 report that it is aware of its effect on commercial and private aircraft, stating: “planned EA [electronic attack] testing occasionally causes interference to GPS based flight operations, and impacts the efficiency and economy of some aviation operations.” Notices to Airmen (NOTAM) are occasionally released to alert pilots of GPS disruptions during military tests; however, this has only served to create anxiety for civilian aviation.

To address this, the FAA is working on its NextGen (Next Generation Air Transportation System) modernization project, which will shift the agency’s radio navigation systems to satellite. The NextGen initiative is aimed toward making aviation safer by investing in new technologies. The FAA has already decommissioned several of its VHF stations that supported radio-enabled navigation. According to the agency, the goal is to have as minimal ground stations as possible. As of today, there are fewer than 600 ground stations in the U.S.

The Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA), a nonprofit association, recommended in a 2017 report that the FAA work in tandem with the Department of Defense to avoid military testing during periods with high air traffic, as well as to improve the NOTAM system to better inform pilots and air traffic controllers.

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