How difficult is it to steal an airplane?

Travelers have the impression that airports are safe areas due to numerous security measures. Airport employees wear ID badges and have cards or security codes giving them access to areas that are closed for the public.

But it is hardly possible to prevent each and every unauthorized person to access closed areas at any time. Where people work mistakes are inevitable. Although the number of security breaches should be minimal, they occur on a pretty regular basis.

The weakest points of airport security are probably cleaning and maintenance services. The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) tests those services by concealing fake explosive devices on aircraft. They observe whether cleaners or maintenance personnel detect the simulated bombs. In numerous cases they do not.

The US Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General in turn tests the TSA by smuggling mock explosives or banned weapons through checkpoints. In numerous cases undercover investigators were successful and took those items through security.

The theft of a Horizon Q400 passenger plane by company ground service agent Richard Russell at Seattle Airport on August 10, 2018 is exceptional, but obviously possible. In many respects it is an interesting case. Airlines authorize their licensed mechanics to taxi aircraft at airports provided that they have received special training on aircraft movement on the airport.

Even though Russell was not a pilot he was able to fly the plane and even make a barrel roll as you can watch here. Yet, he had never flown an aircraft before. He had just practiced operating the aircraft on a flight simulator that he had installed on his home computer.

Although 2 F-15 fighter jets were scrambled they just followed the Q400 and did not shoot it down. Russell crashed the plane himself on Kenton Island located in Washington state between Tacoma and Olympia.

He probably hinted to a crash when he told traffic control: “I think I am going to try to do a barrel roll and if that goes good then I am going to go nose down and call it a night.” Prior to that he already told the air traffic controller that he was not planning to land. You can follow Russell’s communication with traffic control here. It is remarkable how calm, professional and with empathy the controller tries to guide Russell to a landing place.

Russell seems to have avoided that there would be any victims on the ground as he crashed the plane in a part of the small Island where nobody lives. The picture shows smoke rising from the site on the island where he went nose down.

Related: “Body scanner mandatory

Tags: plane theft, Horizon Q400, flight simulator

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