Pilot: It’s shockingly easy for an airline employee to steal a plane

As a former airline pilot, I was chilled listening to the recorded Air Traffic Control (ATC) transcripts of Richard Russell, the 29-year-old Horizon Air employee who stole an empty Bombardier Q-400 and took it on a flight to nowhere.

Most of us know that the joy ride from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Friday night ended in a fiery crash approximately 40 miles southwest on Ketron Island. The impromptu pilot did not survive.

But how could such an event occur?

First, understand that almost all airline employees have access to aircraft in some capacity. If the employee is ground service-based, he or she has access to the ramp area. Prior to obtaining this access, both the employer and airport administrator obtain a background check. Criminal history, potential ties to terrorist activity and fingerprints are all part of the process. Once the employee is vetted, an airline ID is issued accompanied by a Secure Identification Display Area (SIDA) badge.

The answer to the burning question of whether a test for mental illness is administered would be “no.” Unless the background check produced documentation of treatment for mental illness, the airline would be unaware.

So, what would stop an unqualified employee from operating a sophisticated, turbo-prop regional airliner? Other than co-workers observing the unusual activity, absolutely nothing. There is no protocol to stop an authorized SIDA badged, uniformed employee from accessing an aircraft on the ramp. It’s not unusual activity unless that person’s job description doesn’t ever involve access to an airplane.

And an employee climbing on board in darkness would most likely go unnoticed. Furthermore, most airlines do not lock airplanes because access can only be obtained by security vetted employees through jet bridges and coded door ramp access.

A clearance from air traffic control (ATC) to start the plane’s engines is not required. Nor is there a necessity to have assistance from a ground crew if the airplane is parked away from the gate and doesn’t require a pushback. An assumption would be made that either a flight crew or two mechanics were in the cockpit.

And apparently this employee found a clear path to taxi onto one of the runways at SeaTac where an unimpeded takeoff could occur without a clearance from ATC. The only risk was a collision with another aircraft that was adhering to the standard protocols.

Over the course of my career, I’ve listened to hyperbole from non-pilots expressing a fantasy of flying an airliner and performing aerobatic stunts. The discussions included a wink and a nod, with not one of those individuals offering even a hint of truly acting out such a scheme. Aside from the legal jeopardy, the fear of death seems to dissuade most folks.

In that regard, the Horizon Air employee would have been in a frame of mind that most of us couldn’t fathom. Even with the qualifications I’ve obtained as an airline pilot, I couldn’t imagine unauthorized use of my company’s airplanes, let alone hopping in a jet that was never part of my experience. Granted, my colleagues are familiar with the axiom, “If you can start it, you can fly it,” but none of us would consider such foolishness without the proper training.

That’s why this event is so incredibly disturbing. It’s obvious that Russell had more than basic knowledge of not only flying airplanes, but specifically of the Q-400. Not only did he manage to take off, but he also performed basic aerobatic maneuvers.

Where did he obtain such knowledge? It’s pure speculation at this point, but the possibility that he gained experience on a desktop simulator would make the scenario plausible. During the recorded transcript, he made quick reference to having played “video games.”

Are you scoffing at the notion? Well, it just so happens that a very passionate group of hobbyists partake in “fake airplane” flying. The sophistication of the simulation is only restricted by the amount of money one is willing to spend. The computer programs offer virtual experiences in everything from Piper Cubs to Boeing 777s.

The simulator itself can involve just a desktop screen and a mouse or a full-blown stick and rudder device. In addition, a subscription can be obtained from various online companies that provide air traffic controllers, interacting in real time as though the simulated flight was an actual trip.

I attended a fake airplane convention in Hartford, Connecticut, with a friend of mine that participates via his own sophisticated desktop simulator. It was impressive to witness the level of professionalism that these hobbyists maintained. Interestingly enough, I have given my friend an opportunity to fly all three of the actual small airplanes I have owned over a period of time, and he has performed above average just on the basis of his fake airplane experience. That being said, with my friend and most sane people, that’s where the fantasy ends.

Judging by the Horizon Air employee’s unorthodox communication with ATC, it would seem that he wasn’t familiar with many aspects of the US airspace environment. He certainly had trepidations about landing the airplane. He was familiar enough with his fuel status to know that the airplane couldn’t remain airborne for very long. Based on my knowledge of the Q-400, I estimate he had less than an hour of fuel in the tanks.

It is possible that one engine flamed out first, and because Russell didn’t have the training to manage the asymmetric thrust situation, the airplane became uncontrollable and crashed into the trees. Of course, it is also likely that the employee decided to accelerate his demise by pushing the nose into the terrain.

So should security procedures change? Perhaps, but not significantly.

I have a simple solution: Lock the cockpit door at all times and give access to only authorized personnel through a key and/or door code. For most airlines, this procedure can be easily implemented because the systems already exist.

In any case, this is a joy ride that will be thoroughly investigated from many angles. As a retired professional, I ask that you please try this at home on your desktop simulator — and not in an actual airplane.