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Boeing 747 airplanes are still updated via floppy drive

Insert lame “cloud update” joke here.

boing 747 400 at Heathrow Airport
Image: Unsplash

Have you ever wondered how a Boeing 747 receives its software updates? Admittedly, I haven’t. According to Pen Test Partners, they update the software from a 3.5″ floppy disk. Not from a pen drive. Not via a wireless connection. But from a 3.5″ floppy disk. Whether this is a case of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” remains to be seen. However, there is no denying that this is a fairly old update method.

The Boeing 747 first saw the light of day back in 1988. So, with this in mind, you can probably see why these updates come from such an old storage medium. Pen Test Partners recently filmed a walkthrough of one of the jets. During this, they discover the floppy disk caddy that is normally hidden behind a locked panel in the cockpit. Let’s take a look at what is inside one of these winged beasts.

Cloud update not available

The airplane in question is a British Airways 747. Unfortunately, British Airways retired its fleet when COVID-19 hit. The reason being that COVID led to a halt in air travel, as we all know. This saw the company profits plummeting, so they’ve taken the 747-400 fleet out of service. It is one of these “out of service” jets that PTP’s Alex Lomas explores, with a DEF CON camera to capture the action. This is part of the DEF CON 28 “AeroSpace Village;” one of the content and activity providers at this year’s virtual festival.

The video takes us on a walkthrough of the plane. During this, we can see how dated the old 747-400 actually looks. Aside from the floppy drive, the flight controls look less hi-tech than you’d expect. There is no WiFi on these jets either; not even WiFi that has been retrospectively fitted. I mean, perhaps this is no surprise given that these airplanes are 32 years old. Despite this, it was still the first airplane to have control screens rather than dials and gauges. As the video reveals, attendants even control the in-flight entertainment with a machine running Windows NT4! Old.

OK, boomer

747 floppy disk drive

Image: DEF CON / YouTube

Floppy drives may not be familiar to all of you, but to readers of a certain age, they will be. This was the storage medium of choice between the 60s and 90s. That is until it CD-ROM overtook it as a more popular storage device. In this instance, it reads navigation databases from the disk which an engineer would update every 28 days. But floppy disks were a popular method of storing games and other software too, once upon a time.

It is super interesting to see what goes on behind the scenes with one of these old planes. There is no doubt that the aerospace tech has advanced a lot since 1988. I mean, we have Elon Musk and his SpaceX project intent on opening up the sky. I wonder if he updates his spacecraft via floppy disk, or whether he just plugs his finger into a USB port and uploads updates from there? Either way, this is a fascinating look at the Boeing 747-400 and the gear we don’t normally get to see as passengers.

What do you think? Surprised that Boeing is still using floppy disks for updates? Let us know down below in the comments or carry the discussion over to our Twitter or Facebook.

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