Theft of Aircraft in Seattle-Tacoma Raises Serious Security Questions

A Horizon Bombardier Q400 aircraft

By Paul Riegler on 11 August 2018
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A more complete story of how a Horizon Air employee was able to steal, fly, and subsequently crash an aircraft taken from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Friday evening is beginning to emerge as details come to light.

Richard B. Russell flew a Bombardier Dash 8 – Q400 turboprop plane for almost an hour over Puget Sound, even performing aerobatics, until it crashed on Ketron Island, off the shore of Steilacoom. Mr. Russell, the only person on board, did not survive the crash.

In the course of the flight, which started around 7:30 p.m. local time according to authorities, Mr. Russell chatted with air traffic controllers who were trying to help him land the plane safely while fighter jets from the Air National Guards of Washington and Oregon flew alongside him, ready to take action should that have been necessary.

Alaska Airlines confirmed the crash on Twitter:

“We’ve confirmed a Horizon Air Q400 that had an unauthorized takeoff from SeaTac around 8pm has gone down near Ketron Island,” it said.

Many people outside the aviation industry were surprised to learn that there are no keys to an airliner as there are to a car. An aircraft is turned on and off using multiple switches inside the cockpit.

At a news conference on Saturday, the chief executive of Horizon Air, Gary Beck, said that Mr. Russell did not have a pilot’s license.

“Commercial aircrafts are complex machines,” Mr. Beck added. “I don’t know how he achieved the experience he did.”

Mr. Russell is believed to have learnt to fly using computer flight simulation programs.

The airline said that Mr. Russell had been employed there for three and one-half years. His job called for him to handle baggage and tow aircraft, it said.

“I want to share how incredibly sad all of us at Alaska are about this incident,” said Brad Tilden, chief executive of Alaska Air Group. “Our heart is heavy for the family and friends of the person involved.”

Airport and airline employees working in ground support have unfettered access to secure parts of the airport as well as airliners and their cockpits. They are not subject to psychological testing but typically only to criminal and other background checks.

Further, many of those involved in ground operations – an area crucial to flight safety – are frequently poorly paid, which could allow them to be influenced by a criminal element.

Furthermore, airport and airline employees working in ground support have unfettered access to airliners and their cockpits.

Meanwhile, at Seattle-Tacoma Airport, dozens of flights and thousands of passengers were delayed as a result of the incident.

Mr. Russell sounded contrite and seemed to understand his predicament.

“I got a lot of people that care about me and it’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this,” Mr. Russell said to air traffic controllers. “I would like to apologize to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it until now.”

He also apologized to air traffic control.

“Man, I’m sorry about this,” he said at one point. “I hope this doesn’t ruin your day.”

The Seattle field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigations is in charge of the investigation into the incident.

“We are going to be thorough,” the FBI said in a statement, adding that it would take the time needed “to scour the area, delve into the background of the individual believed responsible, and review every aspect of this incident with all appropriate public and private partners.”

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

Accura News

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