Are you an aviation enthusiast or pilot? Sign up for our newsletter, full of tips, reviews and more!
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.
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.