How We Can Prevent Stolen Airliners at Major Airports

Can we stop someone from stealing an airliner? We can spend a whole lot of money on it, but there are no guarantees.

In case you haven't seen the news yet, an employee of Horizon Air, a maintenance worker, took a turboprop aircraft for a suicidal joyride from Seattle's SEA-TAC airport. The Bombardier Q400, operated by Horizon, flew for Air Alaska, and was in a remote maintenance area of the field.

The New York Times reported:

“There’s not an ignition switch with a key,” he said. “Once someone accesses the airplane and accesses the flight deck, they’re going to be able to operate the airplane. It won’t be the case all the time that the airplane will be secured because people have to access it in order to maintain it.”

The worker who stole the plane was authorized to have access to it. Obviously, he knew where the checklists were, and how to start the engines. He knew how to taxi and take off. He also knew that airplanes in for maintenance don't have a lot of fuel on board. Control tower radio conversations reported by KOMO in Seattle confirm that the man "had a few screws loose." (His own words.)

Pilot: "...just a broken guy. A few screws loose. Just now realizing it."

At one point, controllers tried to convince him to land the plane at the McChord runway at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Controller: "There is the runway just off to your right side in about a mile. Do you seen that? That's the McChord field."

Pilot: "Oh man, those guys will rough me up if I tried landing there. I think I might mess something up there, too. I wouldn't want to do that. They probably got anti-aircraft!"

Controller: "Nah, they don't have any of that stuff. We're just trying to find a place for you to land safely."

Pilot: "Yeah, I'm not quite ready to bring it down just yet. Holy smokes! I gotta quick looking at the fuel 'cause it's going down quick."

Controller: "If you could, could you start a left hand turn? And we'll take you down to the southeast please."

Pilot: "This is probably jail time for life, huh? I would hope it is for a guy like me."

(Listen to the audio here.)

This raises the question: What could airports do to stop someone with access to the airplane from stealing it? Let's look at a few facts.

First, airports have runways. They are set up for airplanes to take off and land. We can't block the runways or put gates up, because that would compromise safety for the hundreds of airplanes not being stolen.

Second, airline-class airplanes don't have keys. It's just not practical since many different crews and maintenance personnel are in and out of them all day long. It's not such a simple thing to start a multi-engine turboprop (ask my friend and Resurgent writer colleague David Thornton, who has been a professional air transport pilot for years). I only fly little puddle jumpers, and yes, little Cessnas and Beechcrafts do have keys, but not like your Benz in the driveway--more like a cheap padlock or school locker.

The procedures to successfully steal an airliner take specific knowledge and practice. I'll tell you a story I heard in rural Alabama years ago, about the FBI right after 9/11.

If you remember those days, there was supposedly a plot discovered to steal cropdusters and commit various acts of mass destruction with them (tanks filled with poison or bioweapons, etc.). So the FBI went to visit cropduster pilots. Two agents visited a cropduster owner in Alabama who flew from a small dirt strip next to his house. He tied down his plane behind his home.

The agents asked how he secured his plane, to show them the keys, since there were no gates or anything else to stop a plane thief. The old pilot just laughed. "There ain't no keys. If anyone has the balls to fly this thing out of here, they're welcome to it," he drawled. "Plus, there's only about 10 minutes of fuel on board. Where they gonna go?"

A cropduster is, according to some pilots I've talked to, about has hard as an F-111 or a P-51 Mustang to fly. The Q400 or a 767 is likely far easier to steal, with all the automation and documentation on board.

So, airplanes have limitations on fuel and complexity of operation as barriers to being filched. Most worries about airplane thieves center around, well, stealing the plane itself. They are fairly valuable. This is why workers at airports have to undergo drug screens, background checks and the like. But occasionally, you get a someone who, as they say in south Georgia, "nuts up."

The military has ways of preventing this. On military airfields, any aircraft that can be flown is guarded 24/7 by somebody whose job it is to guard airplanes. They are armed with rifles and many times they are authorized to use deadly force to keep the airplane from being stolen. If an NCO or civilian airplane tech decided to steal, say, a tanker aircraft, he wouldn't get far.

One solution is to station 24/7 guards around every maintenance hangar at every airport with airplanes that could potentially be flown. Unfortunately, that's not a cost-effective solution. And it would be largely ineffective, given the rarity of these kinds of events. Another solution is to--well I don't really have another solution that would work.

Sometimes a person becomes suicidal at work and uses the tools of their trade to do it rather spectacularly. We may as well ask how we could stop someone who works at a fireworks factory from blowing themselves to bits. If that person were determined to do it, it would happen. The leading theories on the disappearance of Malaysia's flight MH370 is that the pilot was suicidal, though the latest round of conspiracy theories are trying to debunk it.

Once the 29-year-old maintenance worker in Seattle got in the left seat, fired up the engines, taxied to the runway and took off without authorization (the tower knew immediately), his fate was sealed. It was prison--if he could land the thing, which we now know he couldn't--or death/serious injury.

This was a tragedy, one that could have been much worse. We should look into ways to improve security at airports to keep unauthorized ground movement to a minimum. It would have been much less likely at an airport like Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International that something like this could happen because the morning traffic jam would keep the plane from gaining a runway. But it could have still happened.

In the end, there's little we can do to guarantee with complete certainty that a worker with access to an airliner, with the skill to start and operate it, can be completely prevented from taking off from an airfield. We can spend a boat load of money on fixing this, but there are no iron clad guarantees.

Some things are just risks in the fringe of life that don't merit an enormous effort to mitigate. This one was simply a tragedy.

Comments
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BiggDoggie
BiggDoggie

OK, Steve, you mentioned something with the cropduster - the plane was TIED out back... There'd be some inconvenience with it, but surely these planes aren't moved around constantly, so why not use a cable tie to literally fasten it down to a ring that lays flat to the asphalt when not in use? Only certain people would have key/combo/whatever to disconnect, or even have a retractable cable that's only operable to the control tower or some other central location? It could be similar to a come-along, that pulls tight & not allow removal until tension was released.

IndependentConNT
IndependentConNT

It does really suck when you stop to consider that had this troubled young man survived, he'd get a more severe sentence than most terrorists. He knew that too--and this is why I am skeptical that the crash was accidental. RIP Richard Russell.

Jonah_Kyle
Jonah_Kyle

Not sure whether or not the million-dollar jet THIEF wouldn't know how to land, considering he did show a fair amount of skill flying the jet, even doing loopity-loops. But that point is moot.

Dave_A
Dave_A

There are situations where an Army helicopter or a military jet has been stolen by a mechanic (it's always a mechanic, because they know the start-sequence, but aren't actually allowed to fly the aircraft)....

More or less armed guards are the only way unless you want to add the complexity of a biometric scanner or similar to the plane (which won't happen on military birds, but could on civillian ones).