Malware Alleged to be Contributing Cause of Spanair Flight 5022 Crash

By Tracey E. Schelmetic August 23, 2010

Here’s one more thing to add to our “things we wish we didn’t have to worry about” list.

After Spanair flight 5022 crashed seconds after take-off in August of 2008 in Madrid, Spain, killing 154 people and leaving only 18 survivors, Spanish officials began an exhaustive search for the cause of the crash. The plane had been headed for Gran Canaria, the largest island of the Canary Islands. Witnesses observed that seconds after take-off, the plane rolled to the right and crashed near the runway, breaking into at least two parts and subsequently bursting in flames. Investigation determined that when the plane took off, the MD-80’s flaps and slats were retracted, preventing the aircraft from attaining the lift it needed to take off, and that an alarm that should have sounded to make the pilots aware of the situation had malfunctioned. The cause of the crash has been officially designated as pilot error; despite the lack of warning alert, the pilots should have noticed the problem when they went through their check-list.

Further investigation showed that the problem had occurred on two previous occasions with other flights on the same plane in the days before the crash, but that the maintenance system computer had failed to register the events and warn Spanish airport ground personnel. Had authorities been aware of the problems, the plane would have remained grounded at the airline's headquarters in Palma de Mallorca.

The reason the maintenance computer failed to alert ground control, Spanish newspaper El Pais alleged last week, is that the system was infected with malware in the form of a Trojan virus. Three maintenance workers are currently under investigation for manslaughter: two technicians who checked the plane before take-off and the head of maintenance for Spanair at Barajas airport in Madrid. The judge in the case, Juan David Perez, has demanded that Spanair turn over all the entries in the maintenance computer for the days before and after the incident.

If the report turns out to be true, it will be the first confirmed example of malware leading to fatalities. The final report from crash investigators is expected to be in December of this year.

Tracey Schelmetic is a contributing editor for TechZone360. To read more of Tracey's articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Erin Harrison

TechZone360 Contributor

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