Man Steals Horizon Air Turboprop; Media Gets Hysterical

August 12, 2018

ON FRIDAY NIGHT at Sea-Tac airport in Seattle, a 29 year-old employee of Horizon Air purloined one of the carrier’s Dash-8 Q400 turboprops. Richard Russell, a ground service worker, took the 76-seat aircraft for an hour long joyride before crashing onto an island in the southern end of Puget Sound. Russell was killed.

In the wake of this unfortunate incident, the media is going a little bonkers over the idea of airline employees appropriating aircraft and causing mayhem. “One of the biggest potential perils for commercial air travel,” is how one CBS news story described it. In the same story, Erroll Southers, a transportation security expert, said, “The inside threat is the greatest threat we have to aviation.”

Looking back over the history of air crimes, only a tiny fraction of which have involved rogue airline workers, I’m unsure what prompted Southers to say such a thing. If he’s talking about the potential for non-pilot employees to smuggle drugs or possibly plant explosives, that’s one thing. But stealing airplanes is something else.

The Q400, built by Bombardier of Canada, is a small but highly sophisticated aircraft, and Mr. Russell clearly had some understanding of its systems. He was a member of Horizon’s “tow team,” and was qualified to occupy the captain’s seat while the the aircraft was under tow — a position that requires at least elementary training in the plane’s hydraulic, electrical, and communications systems. I’ve been an airline pilot for over twenty years, and was once captain-qualified on an older Dash-8 model (the Q400 is a modernized variant of the De Havilland Dash-8). If you stuck me in the cockpit of a Q400 today, could I get the engines started? I imagine so, but it would take some time and effort. That Russell got the plane up and running is fairly impressive, and I’m even more startled that he didn’t kill himself — and possibly others too — during takeoff or shortly thereafter.



 

He flew for an hour without stalling or rolling over or causing structural failure. I’m sure he wasn’t smooth, and I’m sure he wasn’t flying within normal or safe parameters. To the extent that he needed to, he knew what he was doing, but for the most part he was just flailing around, trying out maneuvers he’d likely practiced on his computer. In which case he was fortunate not to rip the wings off. He wasn’t really flying the plane in a meaningful sense. He was steering. Those are very different things, and there was a very fine line between him being in control, and not being in control. What he was doing was rudimentary, a tiny part of what piloting is all about. For those who think Russell illustrated how easy it must be to fly a plane, I’d like to have seen him perform an instrument approach, handle a go-around, manage an arrival into LAX or La Guardia, or navigate across an ocean — or any of a hundred other things.

And even rudimentary flying isn’t easy. This is not anything the average baggage handler, counter agent or even aircraft mechanic could pull off on a whim. Without some systems knowledge, some rudimentary flying skills, and a whole lot of luck, it’s more or less impossible. The average person, if put in a Q400 cockpit and told to go flying, couldn’t get a propeller turning if his or her life depended on it, let alone take to the air.

A New York Times headline, meanwhile, says the incident “Raises Troubling Security Questions.”

Actually, it doesn’t. But on and on we go: always the new “threat,” the new scare, the new loophole, in our security-obsessed culture and media. It should go without saying that certain airline workers are always going to need, and have, cockpit access and knowledge of how a plane works. What exactly are we supposed to do?

Calm down, for one.

Mr. Southers and the Times are correct that an insider threat does exist, and always has. This particular kind of threat, however — the idea of random employees getting hold of planes — shouldn’t be overplayed.

Employees of Libyan Airlines were implicated in the Pan Am 103 bombing in 1988. A year earlier, David Burke, a recently fired ticket agent at Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA), sneaked a loaded gun past security at LAX. During cruise he broke into the cockpit, shot both pilots, then nosed the airplane into the ground killing everyone aboard. Burke was an insider — or had been until he was fired — but anybody else could have committed the same crime.

We remember, too, Auburn Calloway at FedEx, Tsu Way Ming at SilkAir (maybe), Gameel Al-Batouti at EgyptAir, and Andreas Lubitz of the Germanwings disaster. These were pilots, however. Indeed, the number of pilots who’ve intentionally crashed planes is greater than the number of other employees who have. I hate pointing this out, but in a weird way, maybe, it underscores how difficult the task would be for a non-pilot.

Horizon Air, a subsidiary of the Alaska Air group and partner of Alaska Airlines, is one of the nation’s oldest and largest regional carriers, with an extensive network throughout the Pacific Northwest.

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46 Responses to “Man Steals Horizon Air Turboprop; Media Gets Hysterical”
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  1. Jonathan J says:

    (Apologies for double-posting; I didn’t mean to post as a reply to another comment the first time.)

    Not sure where I heard it, but apparently Mr. Russell wasn’t just a “baggage handler” as many in the media have described him. He was an aircraft handler, responsible for such things as guiding pilots to the gates, pushing back aicraft, even moving aircraft between parts of the airport (probably by using tugs rather than taxiing).

    As such, he was authorized for cockpit access. He might have been trained on basic aircraft ground operation, but I have no idea what that entails. He certainly would have had opportunity to become familiar with cockpit controls, not just from PC-based flight sims, but from actual cockpit time. He might have gleaned information from pilots over the course of his employment.

    That’s a lot of speculation on my part, but I don’t think it is such an incredible thing for an aircraft handler to learn enough to get a plane into the air.

  2. Ted says:

    As expected, your essay is a single voice of sanity among the hysterical media. And thanks for not using the t*****ism word. As predictable, the drama that sells is “safety” rather than talking about one real root cause to this event — mental illness.

    I’ve intentionally not read much elsewhere beyond the headlines and sound bites. The water cooler conversation at my office seems centered around the acrobatics he did and using flight simulators as a surrogate to proper training.

    How big an achievement was the barrel roll or other acrobatics he did on a scale of 1 to 10? Could any pilot certified on the equipment do it?

    … And about the flight sim ‘training’ … How much of him getting off the ground was flight sim vs training he received at work?

  3. https://www.airliners.net/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=1401175&start=150

    This thread in the Airliners.net forums has some people demanding ending sales of flight sims like the Majestic add-in for the Q400 – or a software code or a hardware dongle to start an aircraft of the Q400’s size. And others have pointed out – ‘What if someone goes home with the dongle in their pocket?’ – as I have with work-related keys. Or what if an engine needs to be restarted in flight and neither pilot can remember the software code?

    There will always be security gaps to allow authorized people to do their jobs, and if one of those authorized people goes beyond their authority in and area and/or with a machine they have authorized access to, not much can be done.

  4. Stephane says:

    Why don’t planes have keys, or digital key locks or user-password combinations to allow only authorized personnel to take control of an aircraft? Different permission profiles on a user-password access could be given to ground crews so that they cannot bring the plan to a takeoff speed.

    • Patrick says:

      That would be a rather complicated and highly expensive fix — and still someone could overcome such safeguards — to a problem that effectively doesn’t exist.

      Various airline workers will always need access to aircraft and to cockpits: pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, towing crews, etc. Somehow wiring a plane so that only SOME of these employees can, in CERTAIN circumstances, manipulate CERTAIN controls,to CERTAIN parameters or settings… it’s just a nonstarter, trust me!

      Of all the ways to improve security, and air safety in general, this one doesn’t make the cut.

    • Jonathan J says:

      Not sure where I heard it, but apparently Mr. Russell wasn’t just a “baggage handler” as many in the media have described him. He was an aircraft handler, responsible for such things as guiding pilots to the gates, pushing back aicraft, even moving aircraft between parts of the airport (probably by using tugs rather than taxiing).

      As such, he was authorized for cockpit access. He might have been trained on basic aircraft ground operation, but I have no idea what that entails. He certainly would have had opportunity to become familiar with cockpit controls, not just from PC-based flight sims, but from actual cockpit time. He might have gleaned information from pilots over the course of his employment.

      That’s a lot of speculation on my part, but I don’t think it is such an incredible thing for an aircraft handler to learn enough to get a plane into the air.

  5. Jerry says:

    He didn’t just fly it, he did both a barrel roll and a full loop for goodness sake! He nearly put it in the drink both times, but he survived them both and it was amazing to watch.

  6. Rod says:

    “Tsu Way Ming at SilkAir (maybe)” crashed his own plane.

    Maybe with a capital M. Boeing certainly wants us to think so. But from what I understand, the consensus is that he didn’t.
    This is naturally a pedantic footnote.

    I wonder whether Russell finally:

    1) flew the Q400 into that island;

    2) broke it in mid-air;

    3) was shot down.

    Presumably we’ll never know.

    • Connor says:

      The SilkAir plane was almost certainly pilot suicide. The only professional group to describe it as rudder reversal was a public court jury in Los Angeles- a jury that was not allowed to access NTSB examinations, meaning they had no concrete evidence to go off. The Indonesian air investigation board claimed “not enough evidence” to give a probable cause one way or another.

      And there are plenty of witnesses on the ground and air who saw Russell go in. He even said himself he wasn’t sure how to land it, his plan, assuming he didn’t crash during his stunts, was to “go nose down and call it a night”.

      He wasn’t shot down, and he didn’t suffer a catastrophic in-flight failure. He crashed the plane intentionally, fortunately in a sparsely populated area.

    • Thomas says:

      I think that he was going to attempt a landing, but lost control prior to such.

      • Rod says:

        Connor, to say that it “was almost certainly pilot suicide” suggests the existence of convincing evidence to that effect. So what is it?
        On the contrary, evidence of defects in the yaw-damper system of the accident aircraft Was definitely found (and the 737 did have a nasty history of uncommanded rudder movements). Tellingly, rather than appeal the verdict, the manufacturer settled with all claimants. What does That tell us?
        The circumstantial evidence of suicide was similarly debunked.
        Of course we can never be 100% certain —- hey, maybe Egyptair 990 was spontaneous structural failure.

  7. Speed says:

    Aviation Week has an interesting article about this …

    Taking Stock of the ‘Insider Threat’
    http://aviationweek.com/commercial-aviation/taking-stock-insider-threat

  8. Carol says:

    Yes, but the notable bit was that he did stunts with the plane—which pilots(?) are saying require some real experience.

  9. Matt Gailitis says:

    Hey Patrick.
    Quick question: What would you say to someone who says the incident proves that pilots are overpaid?
    I’ve been reading your columns for years now, and I seem to remember you mentioning the low wages paid to pilots who fly planes similar to the one flown by Rich.
    Also, the person with whom I am interacting on Youtube made a claim saying remote pilots are better.
    I responded by asking what wages “remote pilots’ should get as opposed to those who fly the plane.
    I need a little back-up here, stat!
    I kid. if you have a couple minutes to spare, I’d appreciate your response.

  10. Michel de Jocas says:

    Patrick,

    The Seattle Q400 event remind me of something that happened in Gaborone, Botswana in 1999. I was there, in one of the buildings threatened by the pilot. Have a look at this:

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/1999_Air_Botswana_ATR_42_crash

    And this was two years before 9/11. Was an idea seeded then for others to emulate?

    Love your site.

    Michel de Jocas

    • James says:

      Arguably, Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor could have seeded the idea. Or, for that matter, the Kamikazes of World War II. Crashing an airplane into a building is not exactly an original idea.

      • U. David says:

        A pre-Clancy, but post-Kamikaze, fictional example is found in the 1970’s neo-nazi/white supremacist novel/screed “The Turner Diaries,” which culminates in a suicide plane strike on The Pentagon.

      • Patrick says:

        The Air France hijackers in ’94 intended to fly the A300 into the Eiffel Tower… until French commandos took them out.

  11. Alan says:

    Igniting the terror-sensitive lizard back brains of media aside, you would think that given the price tag of these airliners that the owners would have to be satisfied with the access-security procedures they solely are in control of.

    Of course these inside jobs are rare — that is exactly why an incident like this could happen.

    BTW what do one of those Dash-8 Q400s cost? I guess about $50M about. That’s a hell of a price tag for a joyride; this ain’t a gang of teenagers hot-wiring a Buick.

  12. Dan says:

    Not sure why nobody has mentioned this yet, but Majestic makes a Dash-8 Q400 add-on for the Microsoft Flight Simulator for home PCs, and there are probably more. I’m pretty sure he could have learned everything he needed to know from that.

    • James David Walley says:

      He probably wouldn’t have needed the Majestic Q400, or even Microsoft Flight Simulator (or Lockheed Martin Prepar3D, its successor). There are plenty of YouTube videos by sim enthusiasts, showing “flights” in the Majestc from “cold and dark” to full shutdown. If all you were looking for was to learn procedures, those videos would tell you all you needed to know.

  13. Chuck1122 says:

    This was a very sad situation. But thanks for noting the HYPE and HYSTERIA of the news agencies. That’s why I stopped watching TV news years ago. I also get irritated with the self appointed experts who fan the flames for their 15 seconds of fame.

  14. Mark says:

    Okay, I agree this is not the biggest threat to the world. How did he get the knowledge? In most professions, there are shortcuts published to let employees in support positions do rudimentary work. Cheat sheets like “How to start the engines” is probably among them. After that, lots of online information exists for the basics of flying.

    I’m sure we’ll see demands for intervention devices. I would not like to be on a plane that can be remotely controlled, providing a hacker a takeover target. Maybe something that follows the KISS principle, like “The Club” but for an airplane control.

  15. Mike Richards says:

    Possibly dumb question for the pilots here…

    …are planes (or just the cockpits) locked when they’re sitting between flights?

  16. David S says:

    So let’s hear some speculation! How could your average bag handler gain the skills he showed off before his tragic end. Is it really the video games? Could he learn to do this with no simulator or real flight experience? Can one read up on flying and become a savante at it? This story is fascinating and the ATC guys were just amazing at dealing with such a unique situation. Are they specifically trained for a situation like this?

  17. dan says:

    One of the more surprising things about this is that Alaska Air actually owns Horizon.

  18. DoubleClawHammer says:

    Add Zaharie Ahmed Shah of the MH disappearance as well, since the authorities (along with many experts) are suspecting pilot suicide.

  19. RobD says:

    FWIW, there are a lot of videos on YouTube demonstrating, step by step, exactly how to do what he did (startup). I did see one news report that mentioned other ground staff saw him watching videos a day earlier, so I imagine that must have helped.

  20. Gamboler says:

    A Marine flight mechanic once took a joy ride in an A4 Skyhawk. He had glider experience and 100 simulator hours, however.

    http://articles.latimes.com/1986-07-05/local/me-20219_1_el-toro

  21. ReadyKilowatt says:

    The same thing can be said for just about any job. Some worker goes nuts and does a swan dive off Hoover Dam? OMG a terrorist risk! Snowden. Whomever had access to the DNC email servers (the transfer speed was way too fast to be over a network connection). Hell I could cause some real damage to my employer (and some critical infrastructure) if I wanted to.

    But the reality is, there are so few of these incidents because the vast majority of us have no interest in sabotage. This guy obviously has a back story, one we’ll probably never hear because next week there will be a new shiny object that catches the media’s attention.

    • Mark says:

      Hi Ready,

      I believe your namesake must be Reddy Kilowatt. Wikipedias says he is a fictional character that acted as corporate spokesman for electricity generation in the United States and other countries for over seven decades.

  22. Pete Arthur says:

    I once took a group of Air Cadets to RAF Coningsby to see the Eurofighter Typhoon. One of the kids sitting in the cockpit quipped ‘Can I take it home’? The pilot who was supervising told him that if he could talk him through the start up procedure, he could have it. Naturally, the kid didn’t even know where to start. That got me thinking and I asked one of the ground crew if he’d be able to get it off the ground. His reply was ‘Probably, but I don’t think I’d be able to keep it airborne for very long, and definitely wouldn’t be able to land it’
    Back in 1966, an RAF engineering officer ‘Taffy Holden’ was trying to replicate a fault during a fast taxi on an English Electric Lightning fighter and inadvertently took off. He managed to do a circuit and landed. He was a qualified pilot, and although he knew the aircrafts systems inside out, he had no experience on jets. He later said that he was ‘Bloody lucky to be alive’ and his guardian angel had requested to be reassigned.

  23. Lester Wilson says:

    Pretty impressive that he was able to pull this off. Thankfully no one else got hurt.

  24. J Kevin Brady says:

    Certainly a creative way to kill yourself, entertaining but certainly not anything we need great worry about. At least he didn’t take out anyone else-I wonder if he purposely flew to a remote island? A bit sad, really.

  25. Alan Dahl says:

    It should also be noted that in addition to starting the aircraft he also used a tug to turn it 180 degrees, another (but lesser) specialized skill. Also does the Q400 require ground power or a separate APU to start? If so that’s one more thing a potential thief would need to know how to do.

    It would be interesting to hear what interactions he had with the tower and whether any ground personnel were scrambled to stop him pre-takeoff.

  26. Ridge Taylor says:

    I was hoping you’d weigh in on this story. Well written and thanks.

  27. Ryan says:

    Interesting article! It’s not like CBS to make a mountain out of a molehill.

  28. Phil says:

    Finally, a non-emotional response to the endless news fears. Thank you!

    One question I have has to do with SEA-TAC departures. I understand starting the aircraft, taxiing the aircraft and even awareness of the aircraft systems. But what about control tower personnel? I understand that was the last Q400 due in that day so there wouldn’t have been any strips for that aircraft/flight. I understand the pilot taxied from Alaska stands to the runway? But who filed his flight? What kind of strip was in the tower?

    This isn’t Podunk Muni, this is SEA-TAC! There should have been controllers in the tower aware something non-standard was taking place …

    • Joebob says:

      Where N449QX was parked was called “cargo 1” and once he towed the aircraft to face west, it would’ve been maybe a 30 second taxi over to runway 16C. Listening to the ATC recordings, the controller asked the Q400 taxiing to 16C to identify callsign and he failed to do so. Then within seconds he’s in the air. I imagine that’s when they scrambled the F15s.

  29. Total says:

    “This is not anything the average baggage handler, counter agent or even aircraft mechanic could pull off. Without some systems knowledge, some rudimentary flying skills, and a whole lot of luck, it’s more or less impossible.”

    How about if that airline employee went to a flight school ahead of time and got a bit of training?

    I think the media is going a bit bonkers because we’ve spent every moment (effectively or ineffectively) since 9/11 hardening the cockpit doors of planes in flight and now they’re discovering that on the ground, any TDH (Tom, Dick, Henrietta) can walk in and take a plane.

    • Patrick says:

      Except they can’t, which is my point. And anyone who is able to do this would, as part of his or her job, have cockpit access in the first place.

      • Total says:

        “Except they can’t, which is my point”

        Okay, so I exaggerated for effect. What the media is freaking out about is that what they thought was a secure situation is actually open to exploitation by a much broader population than anyone believed. If that guy had been homicidal rather than suicidal and crashed it in downtown Seattle, a lot more people would likely have died. If that guy had been one of (oh, let’s say) 19 terrorists who had been planning for while, gotten themselves hired at major airports, gone to flight school, and then took off and crashed the planes into major buildings, the death count would have been way way higher.

      • TheMadTurk says:

        As was pointed out by local news the night it was happening, the aircraft doors are not locked from the outside. And, there are no “keys” to the aircraft…just a well defined sequence of cockpit events that must be carried out to get the engines started.

        One thing I haven’t seen in local coverage (though I haven’t been pursuing it much) is whether or not he had a home computer with MS Flight Simulator or a similar program on it.

        Finally, I strongly doubt he was shot down. There have been no reports of gunfire or missile explosion from the fighters, which were reportedly trying to herd him away from populated areas, even out over the Olympics or all the way to the ocean. There are few places in the Puget Sound region to “safely” shoot down an aircraft, and his flight was obviously non-threatening. I think the Air National Guard would do all it could to *not* shoot unless there was a dire threat (like a course directly over downtown Seattle, Tacoma, or any of the many military bases in the area).

    • Ben says:

      A bit of flight training wouldn’t in and of itself help much. The real issue is aircraft systems management, which can be very particular to a certain make/model/configuration of aircraft. As mentioned, some maintenance workers are going to have to have that kind of knowledge on a particular aircraft type to do their jobs. If this guy had had access to a 777 and knew how to drive a tug I don’t think he would have gotten very far. He knew about Q400 systems and that enabled him to get that far.