Boeing 747s Still Use Outdated Floppy Disks for Major Software Updates

There is an engineer who personally installs system updates with floppy disks in every Boeing 747.
Brad Bergan

Several administrations ago, a now-antiquated piece of technology called a floppy disk provided the easiest way to save or transfer data from one computer to another. But while floppy disks seem obsolete, they still play a crucial role in uploading software updates to Boeing's 747-400 planes, according to an initial report from The Register.


Boeing's 747 fleet still use outdated floppy disks for major updates

The interesting find came via a cybersecurity firm called Pen Test Partners, according to The Register. The firm debuted a video walkthrough of a British Airways 747 following the airline's decision to retire its entire fleet in July amid the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis.

First played at this year's virtual DEF CON hacker conference, the video was roughly 10 minutes long and gave everyone present a rare tour of the plane's avionics bay and cockpit — where Pen Test Partners extracted a 3.5-inch floppy disk drive.

Surprisingly, the 747 uses floppy drives as a navigation database loader and requires an update every 28 days, reports Gizmodo. This means there exists an engineer who makes monthly visits to every 747-499 — flopping floppy disk in hand — and manually deliver every update, personally.

Additionally, the majority of Boeing 737's are also updated with floppy disks, reports The Verge. Operators of these planes carry binders stuffed with floppy disks for "all the avionics that they may need," according to a 2014 Aviation Today report. This means important information about runways, flight paths, airports, and waypoints pilots need to write flight plans.

Aviation industry sticks to 20th-century technology

It sounds especially inefficient when we consider that while some system updates only need one floppy disk of updates — others might need up to eight floppy disks per update.

This has been widely-known since 2014, which raises the question: why hasn't anyone brought the aviation industry up to speed with the 21st century? An Aviation Today report noted that even now, in 2020, a "significant number of airlines are still using floppy disks for software parts loading."

Modern technology not always better for legacy industries

Of course, we should say that the 747-400 is an aging plane — its first flight happened 32 years ago, when floppy disks were cutting-edge, in 1988. Now they simply maintain commercial and industrial legacy systems — economic sectors built to last and not adapt to changing standards of computing technology.

For example, it wasn't until 2019 that the U.S. military pulled 8-inch (20.32-cm) floppy disks from servicing the country's nuclear weapons system. And in 2018, sales of floppy disks actually rose when small indie music labels pivoted to the 3.5-inch (7.62-cm) floppy disk at the crest of the internet-born genre called vaporwave.

Of course, modern technology isn't always better than older generations: the Boeing 737 Max used advanced software systems that glitched badly enough to cause two terrifying crashes, killing 346 passengers — after which Boeing halted production on the line in late 2020. There are other examples, but suffice to say that in the aviation and avionics industries, safety comes before sophistication.

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