The Boeing 747-400 is one of the most popular aircrafts in the world, with its immediately recognisable hump at the top accommodating the three-class cabins inside. While it has been a noble servant for long haul flights from the late 1980s until even today, there is one startlingly old piece of technology that is seemingly still used by airlines operating the 747-400 – floppy disks. This bit of information was unearthed by UK-based ethical hacking and penetration testing company Pen Test Partners, which was given the chance to take a look at a decommissioned Boeing 747-400’s avionics by British Airways.
The use of the floppy disks is in the aircraft’s all important navigation database, which is updated once every 28 days by an airline-appointed engineer. Given how large today’s navigation data can be, it is stunning to think how tedious the operation would turn out to be – the capacity of a mid-‘90s 3.5” floppy disk is 1.44MB only. As shown by the Pen Test Partners in their walkthrough of the now-scrapped Boeing 747-400, the entire loading mechanism of the navigation database on the aircraft is archaic at best in today’s terms. When not in use, the floppy drive and the diskette storage bay are hidden away behind a locked panel, which is only accessed when the monthly database upgrade is required.
This is hardly the first major confluence of cutting edge mobility and archaic technology. An article by The Register says that the English Navy’s HMS Enterprise survey ship runs on the two decade-old Windows ME – the successor to the ancient Windows 98. Similarly, the incredible McLaren F1 supercar, which is one of the most advanced supercars of our time, needs an age old laptop to be serviced and tuned. It is specifically for this that the Compaq LTE 5280 laptop, with a Conditional Access card integrated in it, is sourced by McLaren.
It is interesting to note how such archaic technologies have remained in use for so long. The Boeing 747-400 was first announced back in 1984, and entered operations for the first time in 1989. It has thus remained in flight operations for over three decades now, although it has been earmarked for retirement in the coming years. Leading airlines that still use the aircraft, and hence go through the entire technological ruckus of updating navigation databases with floppy disks, include British Airways, Lufthansa, KLM Royal Dutch, Qantas and China Airlines.
With the last of the Boeing 747-400 aircrafts set to remain flying until around 2025, it would seem that the humble 3.5-inch floppy disks will certainly need to be around until another half a decade. Technology, it seems, may disappear from public consumer sphere, but remains around in niche enterprise applications for far, far longer.