How To Steal An Airliner

For an airline employee, it's easier than you think.

The theft and subsequent crash of a Horizon Air Q400 airliner over the weekend has left many people wondering how it would be possible to steal an airliner from one of the nation’s largest airports in the post-9/11 world. The surprising answer is that it's probably easier than you think.

What made Richard Russell’s theft easy to carry out on an apparent whim was that Russell was an airline employee. Russell had worked as a ground service crewman for Horizon for 3-1/2 years prior to Friday’s incident. To be employed in secure areas of the airport, he would have had to pass a five-year background check that included a review of his criminal history as well as prior work history. While aviation background checks don’t delve into an applicant’s mental state, if any psychological problems were apparent they probably would have been noticed during training if they had not been uncovered when Horizon contacted Russell’s previous employers. Russell’s psychological problems probably manifested after he was already on the job and cleared for access to the flight line.

Once he became a Horizon employee, Russell would have been issued a badge that would allow him to access secure areas of the Seattle-Tacoma airport where he worked. Since Russell was an employee who had a legitimate reason to have access to the areas of the airport where the airplanes were parked, getting to the airplane would have been the easy part.

The tricky part would have been starting the engines and taking off, but even that is not as hard as it sounds. The Bombardier Q400 is a turboprop airliner. Jet airliners typically nose into the gate and passengers embark via the retractable jetway. Since turboprop airliners have propellers, they don’t use jetways. Normally turboprops park away from the terminal and passengers walk outside across the open ramp to get onboard. In the case of Russell’s airplane, N449QX was parked in a maintenance area, not at the passenger terminal. Russell used a tug, which he was trained to use as part of his normal duties, to turn the airplane 180 degrees before he took it.

Airliners don’t typically have lockable exterior doors so getting into the plane was also easy. From his job, Russell undoubtedly knew how to open and close the door. After September 11, airliners were required to have lockable cockpit doors, but they are normally only locked during flight.

Airliners also don’t have keyed ignitions as cars do. Much has been made of the intricate sequence of setting cockpit controls to start the engines. This also is not as hard as it sounds. The Bombardier Q400 is a new version of the Dash 8, originally built by de Havilland Canada in the 1980s. The Q400 version first flew in 2000 and has modern avionics and engine controls, which are much simpler than in older airplanes.

The Q400 engines include FADEC, full authority digital electronic engine controls, that greatly simplify managing the engines. While I don’t have any firsthand experience with the Q400, I have flown a variety of turbine airplanes both with and without FADECs. A Beechcraft King Air turboprop without a FADEC has three sets of levers for its two engines: The throttles, the prop controls and the fuel levers. Online pictures of Q400 cockpits show only two levers, the throttles. Starting the engines was probably just a matter of turning on the aircraft batteries and pressing the starter button.

Airplane cockpits are checklist-driven environments. Russell could have found a checklist in the airplane and simply followed the steps to help start the engines and set up the airplane for flight. While this would have required some minimal knowledge, such as knowing where controls are and what they are called, it would not have been an insurmountable obstacle for someone who was around the airplanes on a daily basis. The landing gear control is typically one of the easiest things to find in a cockpit. It is normally a big handle that is shaped like a wheel.

Russell’s website also indicates that he took airline trips in his spare time. A fringe benefit for airline employees is the ability to travel on standby tickets at little or no cost. Russell may have been able to observe pilots on some of these trips, perhaps from the jump seat (a third seat in the cockpit behind the pilots).

Once the engines were started, taxiing and taking off would have been relatively easy. You just push the throttles forward, wait for the airplane to accelerate and pull back on the control yoke to raise the nose. Russell’s flying probably wasn’t smooth and professional, but it didn’t have to be. He just had to get the airplane off the ground and high enough to avoid obstacles.

Russell could have been aided by flight simulator software. Microsoft Flight Simulator is a PC-based game that has undergone many revisions since the 1980s. Current versions allow upgrades so that users can pretend to fly many different aircraft, including the Q400.

As a former simulator instructor, I can say that even nonpilots can fly a simulator with a little coaching. It isn’t uncommon for a novice to be able to do loops and rolls in a simulator. Russell reportedly executed aerobatic maneuvers like these with the Q400 and may well have learned them on a PC-based flight simulator. The Q400 is not built to fly aerobatics, however, and there is good chance that Russell could have killed himself earlier in attempting these maneuvers. The flight instrument displays on five screens in the Q400 cockpit really do look like a video game.

Landing is much more difficult than taking off. Landing an airplane is a combination of art and science. The plane’s autopilot could have helped Russell land the plane, but the final seconds of the flight, the landing flare, touchdown and rollout on the runway would have been in his hands. Large jets have autoland, but a regional airline turboprop would not be equipped with such a system.

It seems likely that Richard Russell was intent on ending his life when he took off. There have been several cases of pilots using their airplanes to commit suicide. It seems likely that this was Russell’s goal all along.

Despite all the precautions and security measures, it is impossible to foresee every scenario. If an airline employee passes a background check and gains trust through years of experience on the job, there is no reason to suspect that he would decide to take an airliner for a fatal joyride. Thankfully, most aviation employees are responsible people for whom bending an airplane and using it to hurt people is unthinkable.

[Photo credit: Eric Salard/Wikimedia]

No. 1-1

So now, again, we need to change security at airports to keep nutcases from playing with the planes....