Fewer than 20 Boeing 747-200s remain in service worldwide, and only in cargo or military configurations. The US Air Force operates six aircraft, two of them as Air Force One. It’s unclear if they still use floppy disks as well, but the US military used even older 8-inch floppy disks in its nuclear arsenal until 2019.
Several other types of commercial aircraft also use floppy disks, including newer variants of the 747 and 767, older Airbus A320s, and some business jets, such as the Gulfstream, built before the 1990s. You can switch from floppy disks to USB drives, SD cards, or even wireless, but that can cost thousands of dollars—and mean replacing something that, while archaic, certainly works.
“There are some other weird evolutionary dead ends we’ve found ourselves in because everything has to bow to the reliability gods in aviation,” says Brian Ford of ACI Jet, an aircraft maintenance company based in California. “We’re still using PCMCIA cards and Zip drives, which are also getting harder and harder to find. We have much longer design cycles, which is always nice [they’re] lagging behind in consumer devices, but we’re catching up.”
After the rodeo incident, Necaise decided to finally upgrade, but not to a brand new machine, just to a floppy-USB emulator. These devices cost about $275 each, replace a floppy drive with a simple USB port, and are custom-made by several companies.
“Embroidery and CNC [computer-operated industrial tools for cutting materials such as metal or wood] are usually our biggest buyers,” says Joshua Paschal of PLR Electronics, a Texas-based company that sells emulators.
PLR has created several base models that can be configured to work on nearly 600 machines. Their list includes looms, stage lighting consoles, circuit board printers, oscilloscopes, digital printers, electrocardiographs, vector signal analyzers, injection molding machines, pipe benders, dice saws, wire cutters, plasma cutters, metal presses, sound samplers, musical instruments. such as pianos and keyboards, computer disk drives from companies such as Sony, Panasonic and NEC, and dozens of embroidery and CNC machines.
Most cost thousands of dollars, and some aren’t even that old, so owners will want to keep them as long as possible: “A lot of this equipment was never upgraded to USB, even when USB was dominant,” Paschalia says. “They’re still stuck with disk drives, especially embroidery machines. This has left a great opportunity in the market to upskill these people.”
People come to PLR for upgrades not just because they can’t find the discs, but because they can’t get replacement discs. “Even when we started selling these devices 12 years ago, floppy disk drives were hard to come by, so now I can’t imagine,” says Paschal. Sales are falling, but Paschal says the company still sells 2,000 to 3,000 units a year.
The floppy disk may never die. “There are people in the world who are still busy finding, repairing and maintaining phonographs from 1910, so I find it very hard to believe that the floppy disk will completely disappear,” says Laurie Emerson, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and founder of the Media Archeology Lab.