Going Direct: Huge, Gaping Holes in Aviation Security…Is A Good Headline

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I spent Friday night like a number of my journalist friends, tweeting about the criminal drama unfolding live in the Northwest. Though I’m certain you already know this, a ground handler stole a Horizon Dash 8 Q400 (a 75-passenger-ish twin turboprop) and went on an hour-long joy ride.

Horizon Dash 8 Q400
A ground handler at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport stole a Horizon Dash 8 Q400, similar to the one seen here, on Friday, August 10. Photo by Eric Salard (N431QX PDX) [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr.
No one else was on the plane, and the pilot of it wasn’t a pilot at all. Richard Russell, who was a baggage handler and tug operator for Horizon somehow managed to get the plane started and took it off without talking with controllers until after he was airborne. The flight included a number of aerobatic maneuvers, a barrel roll and reportedly a loop, as well,

The Q400 was showdowned by a pair of Air Force F-15s, which were reportedly prepared to shoot down the plane if it flew toward the city center.

The situation was harrowing, and the controller who was talking with Russell throughout the flight was remarkable in the way he communicated with the plane thief—it was not, in my book anyways, a hijacking—smartly avoiding alienating Russell while still working to keep the flight away from populated areas. Russel, who went by “Rich,” indicated on a couple of occasions that he was on a suicide mission, mentioning on separate occasions that he wasn’t planning to land the plane and that after he had flown some aerobatic maneuvers he’d point the nose down down and call it a night.

Mainstream media outlets seemed determined to sell the story in a couple of predictable ways. One, the heist revealed some troubling security weaknesses in the airline world and, two, because Russell wasn’t a pilot, he must have used flight sim games to train, so, are flight sim games a big problem for security?

First, no holes in security were revealed in this tragic incident. Russell was well known, had a security clearance and wasn’t even a pilot. The statistical chances of someone like him stealing a plane were close to zero. He was, for sure, an outlier. The bigger problem is a pilot on a suicide mission stealing a plane and killing hundreds, which has happened in recent years, probably at least three times. That is the security hole that no one has much of an idea how to fix. Yeah, I don’t’ either.

The second notion, that flight sim games somehow are a danger to our safety as they train people to steal planes, as Russell did, is not just false but preposterous. Russell was a natural, someone who surely played flight sims but also somehow figured out the complex start sequences of the Q400 while also being able to fly some really challenging maneuvers in a big plane not even designed for them. And let’s not forget that Russell was clearly not out to hurt anyone but himself. Yes, he stole and destroyed a plane. The owner, probably a leasing company, will surely be made whole by their insurance o the plane and the insurance company will likely survive, too. Did he put lots of innocent people at risk. Yes. But he went out of his way to not harm anyone except himself. And let’s not forget that there are simulation games for commercial trucking, commercial shipping, space flight and more. And then there’s the subject of first-person shooter games that are very good at training people in urban warfare. Attacking flight sim games in the aftermath of this personal tragedy is farce.

But can we do any thing in addition to the multi-level security measures we already have in place to prevent such future joyrides by ground agents from happening again? Probably not. Which is okay, because it’s not going to happen again. It’s horribly sad that it happened the once.

13 thoughts on “Going Direct: Huge, Gaping Holes in Aviation Security…Is A Good Headline

  1. Ever since 9/11, I’ve maintained that all of the security measures put into effect at airports for the regular traveler are nothing but window dressing and do little if anything to prevent another similar event.

    I won’t go into specific vulnerabilities at specific airports, but based on this incident, anyone with a modicum of knowledge about physical security, in general, can come up with a number of scenarios that are nightmarish.

    The bottom line is that there isn’t enough money in the world for the US to prevent events like this, or worse, that can take place outside the terminals at airports.

  2. Huge huge security issue !!!!

    Taxi the plane take few minutes , right ?
    Lining up takes few minutes , right ?
    Where is the ground security ?
    Ground control ?
    Come on, huge crazy security issue at the airport

  3. One gaping aviation security hole is the ability of anyone to start a plane’s engines without keys, security codes or some security mechanism.

  4. Very Well said. I read today that a retired Secret Service agent was quoted saying we need more security. What makes him the expert?
    I will not be surprised if there is a big knee jerk campaign started to be able to take over control of any large aircraft from the ground. This will be in conjunction with the push to go to single pilot operations. Boeing has the patent already and many people believe that there have been incidents in the past where aircraft have been “hijacked” from the ground.

  5. Sometime soon, we need to expand mental health services for all employees in the aviation industry, both for their well being and for the safety of others. Annual psychological screening, just the same way we check blood pressure, fasting blood sugar and cholesterol. The screening instruments exist, they are not expensive, and we already do them for Class I Medicals. It would be cheaper than replacing a Dash 8 and might avoid the tragedy of deaths on the ground. Something to ponder.

  6. True, you cannot put all the blame on simulator games, but it does add to the total picture. More troubling to me are the over-zealous pilots who enjoy viewing themselves on YouTube doing a detailed “How To” video in their airline pilot’s uniform. Impressive yes, but there is absolutely no reason for the general public to see step-by-step on how to start up an airliner. Save that for your recurrent training! You don’t see bankers posting a video on how they move money to the armored car. Again, there is no need for the general public to be informed on the procedure as it only educates the next kook.

  7. I do have to admit, it is a little scary that can happen. But like it’s been pointed out, yes, flight sims should not be the target here. I as an aspiring airline pilot have learned Airbus and Embraer systems from it, but never have the intent of using it for bad. I was very glad he didn’t do anything else but what he was setting out to do to his life. Still sad.

  8. I disagree, TSA should be able to stop a plane on the ground from being able to take off. Airport security should be able to stop a small armed group from getting on a plane and getting to a runway.

    Stop checking my shoes and be ready for real terrorist attacks.

  9. As unlikely as you like to point out that this could happen…. the point is that it did happen…. so yes there is a hole in our system… you can never stop people from having access to the cockpit. So my suggestion would be to install an access code for engine start up that changes with each flight and only the flight crew is given it before boarding

  10. Thanks, Robert,

    I couldn’t agree more that mainstream news media is going to sensationalize this and not pick up on the real problem beneath. I lived through 9/11 in NYC and a week after went straight to my seat on an international flight at 6 am without having been checked at JFK. Although security is “better” today, as a traveler I don’t feel secure or safe with so many people. Heck, I avoid flying on A380s 🙂 The problem with anything these days is pick at a problem thread and society unravels. It’s a mess that looks less and less like it could be cleaned up.

  11. Thank-you for clarifying and showing the truth of what “fake news” had spun.. it was certainly a tradegy…

  12. Terrible tragedy, feel for his next of kin. They are always the one’s paying the fiddler.

  13. Larger planes need start-up security measures. They may be as simple as keys or codes or perhaps as sophisticated as finger print or retinal scan.

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