Floppy Disks Still Used To Update 747 Flight Software

For garden variety daily computing tasks, the floppy disk has thankfully been a thing of the past for quite some time. Slow, limited in storage and easily corrupted, few yearn for the format to return, even if there is some lingering nostalgia for the disks. As it turns out, though, there is still hardware that relies on floppies – namely, the Boeing 747-400, as The Register reports.

The news comes from the work of Pen Test Partners, who recently inspected a 747 being retired as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The floppy disks are used to load navigational databases which need to be updated regularly, every 28 days. Engineers responsible for loading updates must perform the process manually on the ground.

Efforts have been made in some areas to replace the disks with more modern technology. As Aviation Today covered in 2014, legacy aircraft often require updates involving up to eight floppy disks, leading to slow updates that can cause flight delays. As anyone familiar with the reliability of floppy media knows, it only takes one bad disk to ruin everything. While retrofits are possible, it’s more likely that airlines will simply stick with the technology until the legacy airplanes are retired. Certifying new hardware for flight is a major cost that is difficult to justify when the current system still works.

Floppies continue to cling to relevance, even if for most of us it’s simply as the save icon. We’ve also seen floppies used as an even more inefficient method of data entry. It turns out you can even fit an entire podcast on one, too!

 

95 thoughts on “Floppy Disks Still Used To Update 747 Flight Software

    1. Good thing… 8″ floppies are notoriously somewhere between 7.8 and 8.1″ per side on the envelope. The disk inside is reliably 7.75″ diameter, but trying to use one as a rule will yield very unreliable measurements.

    2. I got a three-and-a-half-inch floppy for you right here, buddy ;)

      I shouldn’t be allowed to comment. But anyway, maybe Boeing should go out of business. I feel like they are getting what they deserve here. Seems like that’s how a free market ought to function.

  1. Social security system of Poland uses floppies as a safe means to transfer data and documents between departments. They heard about internet and networking, but floppies sometimes are good enough…

    1. Are you sure? This was news in 2008, a lot may have changed since then. Especially that in 2012 they launched a website (PUE) that lets you review and “manage” your social security. They still haven’t fully integrated it with the main public administration platform in Poland (ePUAP) though.

      But yes, a tender for >100k floppies in 21st century made me chuckle ;-)

    2. (In)famously, up until quite recently, some older German high-speed trains (“ICE”) used floppy disks to transfer seat reservation data. There is no official or reliable source on when this practice finally stopped, but anecdotal reports are dating as recent as 2016, with some even claiming it still happening in 2018. And some not-so-high-speed trains (“IC”) are, apparantly, still using those floppies.

      1. Addendum: According to an interview with the then-designated chairman, they stopped using floppies in favor of mobile communications in 2016 (and, unsurprisingly, had a few difficulties with the switchover).

      2. Cargo trains in Lublin, Poland were monitored and dispatched by Odra 1300 computer until April 10th, 2010. Officially it was powered down on May 1st, 2010, after 34 years of constant use. It operated the biggest cargo dispatch station in Poland. Now all its software is run on emulator because that was easier than rewriting it. The machine was moved to the museum, it’s still in a working condition. It had two processor units, one was in use, while other was operated as backup. If the main one failed, Odra switched to the other without interruption, providing constant operation.

        Odra 1300 series were clones of British ICL1900 series minicomputers, recreated from some documentation, mainly Operators’ and Programmers’ Manuals. They didn’t actually have any circuit diagrams for the machines, so in the end Odra worked better and faster than ICL machine. I have a manual for Fortran and COBOL for this machine. COBOL had all its commands translated into polish….

    3. To quote one of Andrew Tanenbaum’s better* aphorisms: “Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway.”

      * — (His best and most enduring will probably always be, “The nice thing about standards is that you have so many to choose from.”)

        1. It appears to somehow format the card as a group of 1.44 meg sections. That is why there is a three digit indicator on the front of the reader. You select the virtual floppy you want and it uses it. If a device is file oriented instead of track and sector, ther shouldn’t be a need for the limit.

    1. But please don’t use the broken Gotek firmware, at least.
      Use HXC or FlashFloppy firmware, they both use a standard FAT partition that’s containing image files and can at least partly be trusted.

      The default Gotek software is horrid and creates multiple partitions on an USB pen drive that wasn’t made for it. On Windows, you will only see first partitions thus . Unless you use newest Windows NT (Win 10), which is a real risk itself.

      Here’s a video that demonstrates how the Gotek can go nuts in some situations with default firmware..

      https://youtu.be/ewyKYLP7HpM

  2. Pah, this is a fake! It should read “Insert coin” and the “disk stowage” then spends some coffee ;-) Useful equipment for a flight engineer also still present in a 747-400, isn’t it?

  3. Apparently, so many engineers passed out holding their breath while doing an eight-disk-update that Boeing installed an oxygen mask just below the drive (you can see it in the picture!).

    1. Looks like one or two LED smart displays — Avago/HP made them, as did a couple of other manufacturers. The older ones you fed via parallel, just shoving ASCII in, although there are serial versions; the really old ones have segmented characters. New ones are quite expensive, but you can sometimes find 4 and 8 character versions on the surplus market for between $10-20.

  4. you must need to do something updating in mid-air because there is an oxygen mask nearby, so as i’m imagine it, you are updating the firmware of the plane, then the plane is stop working and start to fall, so you need your mask to be able to continue the update process (now with the correct disks)

    1. You apparently didn’t read this part “which need to be updated regularly, every 28 days. Engineers responsible for loading updates must perform the process manually on the ground.”
      No masks needed once a month, on the ground.

  5. The B-52 has been in service for 70 years and expected to remain in operation another 30 years. There have been upgrades. I’m not sure when the airframes of currently operational units were built. Maybe 1960s or 70s? Probably all the paper tape is gone now but I did use systems in the late 90s that updated on paper tape and used Teletypes. What’s running now? Tape cassette, bubble memory, floppies? These are still the cutting edge of our nucular (per President Bush, that’s how it’s pronunciated) deterrence.

    1. Some people feel that if it can be updated, it must be updated, regardless if it is needed or makes sense. Changing it would either require a device to be created that works EXACTLY like a floppy or major changes to the operating system that needs a lot of testing.

      1. This is true, they do have floppy disk drive emulators installed on numerous older machines to replace the original systems but the issue with aerospace is that the drive would have to meet aerospace requirements to be used.
        I can say to meet such requirements is difficult when things are ideal. So I can see why they do what they do. It could be worse. I remember CNC machine programs being backed up on punch tape. I thought “crazy”, as too me it was cheaper to run serial cable to each machine from their main frame. They had a compaq PC on a cart too. Those were weird days. :D

      1. I think surprisingly, they had 386es qualified for use before they’d made that much inroads into consumer desktop market. Then that was it for x86 for nearly 2 decades. Then finally they qualified some thinkpads about 12 years ago.

  6. I stopped using floppies when thumb drives came out because I wanted to stop finding errors in my Microsoft Word files.
    I still get errors or formatting errors a little from the files on my thumb drive but not as much.

    Unless there is error checking or redundancy, this should concern everyone. It needs to be addressed.
    What is the flight computer going to do when there is incorrect data because of an error? At least there are pilots on board who know how to fly.

    1. I’m speaking under correction, but I believe the data is updated on ground, before the flight.
      As for the floppies. Floppies of the last generation were cheaply made. They are no comparison to floppies from the 70s, 80s, 90s when floppy diskettes still mattered. Also, the later, slim USB floppy drive have lousy build-quaility.

      1. Back in the day I had a Verbatim 5.25″ 360K disk with a fingerprint, grape jelly stain, and a ball point pen mark on the media. That disk *never* failed to format 100%. None of the stuff on it was from me, I got it that way in a lot of TI-99 equipment.

  7. “As anyone familiar with the reliability of floppy media knows, it only takes one bad disk to ruin everything.”

    Sure, any instance where your software is divided among several physical items is going to suffer from the fact that a failure in any one of them leaves your software unusable.

    I don’t get why whenever there is a post about floppies someone says they are unreliable.

    I used floppies from the mid 80s through the 90s. I can remember exactly one time where a floppy failed and I lost something. (not counting user error where I formatted the wrong disk of course). And that was a disk that I lost track of and was banged around in the bottom of a box of junk for a year.

    On the other hand I stored all my stuff on CDRs in the early 0s. And everything that I didn’t also have stored on a hard drive was lost! They were all in jewel cases, those jewel cases were carefully stored in drawers in the climate controlled house. Yet after a few years EVERY disk was at least partially corrupted. The disks were of several brands purchased at many places as were the disk writers.

    So what’s the favorite storage medium today? USB stick? I’ve had several of those go bad too.

    At this point if it isn’t on at least two hard drives located at separate physical locations I just don’t consider it to be saved. If only I could get a medium with the reliability of a floppy and enough storage space to be practical with today’s files.

    Yes, I know there’s always storing it i̶n̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶c̶l̶o̶u̶d̶ on some stranger’s computer.

    1. I second that. People were apparently not taking care of floppies. Even microfloppies (3,5″) must be handled with care, just like their wobbly ancestors (5,25″,8″).

      If properly stored in protective sleeves or diskette boxes, they wil last. At least if stored in a normal room that is free of moisture, heat, mould, nicotine and not exposed to direct sunlight.

      In short: If stored in a clean wardrobe or a dresser, it will last.

      Unfortunatelly, most users are apparently true to their manliness and keep their diskettes as neatly and tidily organized as their socks. ;)

      (Seriously, though. I have seen some badly tortured floppies. Found sand and hairs on the magnetic sourface. Why most can’t people use a little piece of paper to fold a simple sleeve ?)

      1. My problem with floppies is that my family genetics give me a stronger natural magnetic field than the average human. In high school, as a computer programming major, I was required to hold all my work on floppies as there was no local storage at my school, and at least once a week the magnetic field of my body would partially format my disk. I was almost devistated, but fortunately the Internet became a thing shortly before I graduated, and then flash drives shortly after. It’s not as big a concern anymore.

      2. Anecdote time.

        I recently recovered a pile of Apple II floppies with stuff I created as a child. They were sitting in a floppy filing box in a closet in an often not air-conditioned part of a house in Texas for about 30 years. Not a single bad sector among them.

    2. “So what’s the favorite storage medium today? USB stick? I’ve had several of those go bad too.”

      DNA is now the preferred medium. A little coughing and sneezing makes backups easier.

    3. Hear! Hear! The market demanding storage capacity while ignoring longevity and robustness, and has left us with an almost required 3 2 1 storage strategy (3 copies of the file, 2 different storage media, 1 offsite). It is kind of funny, because many people don’t even use the space. Similar to consumer bandwidth demands. You can stream 1080p on 5Mbps and even 4k on 25Mbps, but yet people want Gbps speeds. What they really want is a low stable ping, because that is what makes browsing feel ‘fast’, but that isn’t what they have been told to ask for.

    4. You must be astonishingly lucky or not rewriting much. My parents had a partial case of unformatted 5.25″ disks that I still suspect of being QC failures, since every single disk would show errors just by being formatted. I used to go to the library with a box of 3.5″ disks to use the internet; these disks were repeatedly overwritten, and saw many, many corrupt files. The only time any disk was out of the storage box was when it was inserted in a drive. Off the cuff, I’d give an overall failure rate of at least 40% for disks I was rewriting, but unmodified disks seemed almost immortal. Anecdotally, CRT monitors seemed responsible for accelerating disk corruption too. I’ve never had a flash drive fail (out of maybe 20), though I know people who have. Only one of my hard drives (out of 30+) has actually failed, though that’s probably since only a handful have really been subjected to intensive rewriting.

      I am afraid of trying to read back in my burned CD and DVD collection though; few are multi-session burns, but I had a lot of corruption back in the day, and the common media is known to be too unstable for archival storage.

      Overall, from my own experience I would say the largest factor in failure rates in non-optical media is rewrites, not handling.

      1. There was a bit of a crap shoot on those back in the day. You’d buy “untested” floppy media, and 2/3 of the time you’d get exactly that, straight from the factory disks that had 3 or 4 bad ones per hundred… and 1/3 of the time, you’d get somebody’s reject pile, a collection of all those 3 or 4 per hundred that they already tried to format and found bad.

    5. I still have the very first CD-R I ever burned, circa 1997-98. Still all readable, except for one CAB file in Windows 95. Dunno why, but that same CAB file would turn up bad on several CD-R, recorded from a definitely good source on more than one hard drive. I assume the secret to its longevity is the dark green dye nobody uses anymore, the disc was even readable in the old Mitsumi 1x proprietary interface drives that were supposedly incapable of reading CD-R.

      Whenever I’d put together a PC I’d include a CD-R with the version of Windows installed, all the drivers and various useful freeware. Dunno why but until Windows 98, that one CAB of 95 would always burn corrupted the first time.

      As for floppy disks, everything I saved to them I always made two copies, especially ZIP files spanned across several, because much of the time when I went to use them one disk would be corrupted just sitting quietly in a comfy temperature.

    6. Some people had regular problems with floppies, others never ha problems. A lot was down to how much you fiddled with them. Keeping the loose in a rucksac at school never helped.
      I have a Mac SE/30, and floppies from the 80s which still work fine (may help that a lot of them would be 720k).
      CDRs – aside from “medical” or “archive” grade CDRs (from a reputable manufacturer) – CDRs deteriorate with time, accelerated by heat and UV. But 5-10 years is too long for most CDRs even in fairly normal office cupboard conditions.

  8. “While retrofits are possible, it’s more likely that airlines will simply stick with the technology until the legacy airplanes are retired.”
    The FAA gets involved here, too. Seems simple, but in aerospace electronics lives are on the line (not trivial).

    1. Makes sense. Imagine, one of these cheap FPBGA based Goteks will catch fire.. Not good.
      It’s not just the function that matters, but the build quality.
      I assume they only use specific floppy drive models that are tested and known to be good.
      They surely don’t use the second-best second-hand floppy drives they can get.

        1. It is in fact flight critical. These are navigation data sets that are being updated. Once the load starts, the aircraft cannot even taxi before the load is completed and validated.

    2. Not just the FAA. There are dozens of regulatory agencies in different countries that may have to get involved with waving their individual magic million-Euro wands before the updated aircraft is allowed to even fly through their airspace.

      Compliance testing in aerospace is what makes $15 toilet seats cost $30,000. In some instances, even changing to a different component package can cause months of red tape.

  9. Would it be possible to use a emulator floppy (not drive!) to circumvent the re certification process?
    Kinda like those audio cassettes that are an MP3 player and/or take audio in from a 3,5mm jack.

    I have no idea how one would construct such a emulator floppy (the head in the drive would still move around and thus you’d need coils along the whole way).

    1. Clever idea, limroh, really! 👍
      In fact, these electric floppies existed. They were used for Smart Media Cards (ask your grandfather 😉). Back in ca. 1996 they were used to transfer pictures from then new digital cameras to PCs and came with extra drivers for Win95, at least. The drivers allowed to read/write more than 1,44MB/2,88MB. Look for “SanDisk FlashPath”..

      1. They were made for SmartMedia cards and Memory Stick. They may work for media up to 256 meg but SmartMedia officially topped out at 128 meg with only a very small number of 256 meg SM cards produced, despite many devices supporting the capacity out of the box or getting firmware updates.

        Several Sony digital cameras that use Memory Stick top out at 128 meg, despite larger capacity sticks physically fitting. The Memory Stick FlashPath was supported by some later models of Mavica floppy disk cameras.

        To use the FlashPath you’re stuck with having to use Windows 95, perhaps Windows 98, maybe Windows Me would work with the driver. IIRC there may have been a read-only driver for Mac OS 7.5.

        Now there would be a good hack, write software to support reading and writing a FlashPath in Linux, OS X, and Windows XP and later.

  10. At least they’re not using 8″ disks like NORAD.

    Maybe if someone pointed out the fuel savings of switching to newer, lighter weight system, like a USB stick with a suitably proprietary connection.

    1. Why is that so? I found 5,25″ floppies to be more reliable than microfloppies. In fact, our family’s C64 disks and the old 5,25″ DOS disks from the mid-80s are perfectly readable still: Norton Commander, Larry 1, PC-DOS 3, Windows 2, Star Flight, Autosketch 2, Flight Simulator 3, etc. are still readable.

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m fascinated by modern technology, but also enjoy vintage tech. That’s why I’m confused by the continuing false believe that everything new is considered automatically better.

      Modern technology is highly complex and can fail as much as older one. In case of 8″ disks you can comparably easily reconstruct damaged sectors, though. Stuff like the Kyroflux can digitize the magnetic surface of a disk (like an audio file), not just the logic informations.
      Now try that with an USB pen drive under time pressure. You’re literally f**ked.

      1. Personally I always found 5.25” floppies to be less reliable. That may be because they lacked physical protection, or because my interactions with them were mainly at school, where stuff wasn’t taken care of. Or it may be that the BBC’s file system was rubbish.

  11. They most likely already have approved equipment to replace the floppy drives but the airlines see no reason to bother unless they break and they can’t get a replacement unit.

    Having worked in aircraft service, I’ve seen floppy drives used for updating the various databases, but they were on the older side. Ethernet connections were the followup tech, and now, USB/SD drives, or in some cases, bluetooth.

  12. ty and those are awesome. I’m surprised I never stumbled over them (on HaD or in computer museums etc.).

    They could be a topic for YTers like “Technology Connections”, “The 8-Bit Guy”[1] and/or “Techmoan”.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FlashPath
    They wouldn’t work in this case because the need a special driver on the host OS but with a different controller one could switch between several floppy images to be emulated.

    [1] 108 Rare and Bizarre Media Types – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvXXkB2jic0

  13. We scoff at this.. But I know for a fact that safety critical systems in railway signalling still use 30-40 year old EEPROMs to store/load data onto their interlockings. In fact, I’m meant to be burning some data to EEPROMs right now… oops!

  14. The people who design and build these systems are smarter than you and I.

    You’ve assumed that these are consumer-grade drives and diskettes. I think the flight record of the 747-400 speaks for itself.

    Would you really refuse to fly on such an aircraft?

    1. Absolutely. Much happier with this than a wifi/BT enabled system which updates automatically.

      Oops, someone had a personal hotspot turned on and it started to update during takeoff.
      Oops, someone forgot to secure it, and anyone can update the flight path.

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