March 27, 2005
A lot of military equipment never works exactly as it is supposed to. Often, this is not a problem. If the gear works well enough, then its quirks are tolerated. But sometimes, the quirk becomes dangerous, and has to be fixed. A recent example was the random, and unexpected launching of flares by the ALE-47 Countermeasures Dispensing System. The ALE-47 is installed on over 5,000 American military helicopters and aircraft. It is used to defend the aircraft against heat seeking missiles. The pilot can launch flares if he sees a missile coming at him, or if the missile detecting systems give an alarm. But for years, the ALE-47 would sometimes just let go with a flare, when there was no danger, and no one had triggered the flare launch. These spontaneous launches were rare enough that no major effort was made to find out what hardware or software problem was causing it. But since 2001, American military aircraft have been piling up a lot more hours in the air, and more of these spontaneous flare launches were happening. This was becoming a safety issue over Iraq, where some of these unplanned flare launches could land in a residential or industrial area and hurt someone. The flares often hit the ground while still burning, which can start a brush fire, burn down a building or set off an explosion in an oil facility.
So the U.S. Air Force turned lose one of its Tiger Teams (think Geek Commandoes) to find out what was causing the problem, and fix it. They eventually found that the problem was a well hidden bug in the software. The problem was fixed on the C-130s, and is now being fixed in other aircraft, which have slightly different versions of the control software.