Plane crashes near Seattle airport

An aircraft that took off without authorization and without passengers has crashed, according to officials at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Posted: Aug 12, 2018 11:58 PM
Updated: Aug 13, 2018 12:16 AM

As a former airline pilot, I was chilled listening to the recorded Air Traffic Control (ATC) transcripts of Richard Russell, the 29-year-old Horizon Air employee who stole an empty Bombardier Q-400 and took it on a flight to nowhere.

Most of us know that the joy ride from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Friday night ended in a fiery crash approximately 40 miles southwest on Ketron Island. The impromptu pilot did not survive.

But how could such an event occur?

First, understand that almost all airline employees have access to aircraft in some capacity. If the employee is ground service-based, he or she has access to the ramp area. Prior to obtaining this access, both the employer and airport administrator obtain a background check. Criminal history, potential ties to terrorist activity and fingerprints are all part of the process. Once the employee is vetted, an airline ID is issued accompanied by a Secure Identification Display Area (SIDA) badge.

The answer to the burning question of whether a test for mental illness is administered would be "no." Unless the background check produced documentation of treatment for mental illness, the airline would be unaware.

So, what would stop an unqualified employee from operating a sophisticated, turbo-prop regional airliner? Other than co-workers observing the unusual activity, absolutely nothing. There is no protocol to stop an authorized SIDA badged, uniformed employee from accessing an aircraft on the ramp. It's not unusual activity unless that person's job description doesn't ever involve access to an airplane.

And an employee climbing on board in darkness would most likely go unnoticed. Furthermore, most airlines do not lock airplanes because access can only be obtained by security vetted employees through jet bridges and coded door ramp access.

A clearance from air traffic control (ATC) to start the plane's engines is not required. Nor is there a necessity to have assistance from a ground crew if the airplane is parked away from the gate and doesn't require a pushback. An assumption would be made that either a flight crew or two mechanics were in the cockpit.

And apparently this employee found a clear path to taxi onto one of the runways at SeaTac where an unimpeded takeoff could occur without a clearance from ATC. The only risk was a collision with another aircraft that was adhering to the standard protocols.

Over the course of my career, I've listened to hyperbole from non-pilots expressing a fantasy of flying an airliner and performing aerobatic stunts. The discussions included a wink and a nod, with not one of those individuals offering even a hint of truly acting out such a scheme. Aside from the legal jeopardy, the fear of death seems to dissuade most folks.

In that regard, the Horizon Air employee would have been in a frame of mind that most of us couldn't fathom. Even with the qualifications I've obtained as an airline pilot, I couldn't imagine unauthorized use of my company's airplanes, let alone hopping in a jet that was never part of my experience. Granted, my colleagues are familiar with the axiom, "If you can start it, you can fly it," but none of us would consider such foolishness without the proper training.

That's why this event is so incredibly disturbing. It's obvious that Russell had more than basic knowledge of not only flying airplanes, but specifically of the Q-400. Not only did he manage to take off, but he also performed basic aerobatic maneuvers.

Where did he obtain such knowledge? It's pure speculation at this point, but the possibility that he gained experience on a desktop simulator would make the scenario plausible. During the recorded transcript, he made quick reference to having played "video games."

Are you scoffing at the notion? Well, it just so happens that a very passionate group of hobbyists partake in "fake airplane" flying. The sophistication of the simulation is only restricted by the amount of money one is willing to spend. The computer programs offer virtual experiences in everything from Piper Cubs to Boeing 777s.

The simulator itself can involve just a desktop screen and a mouse or a full-blown stick and rudder device. In addition, a subscription can be obtained from various online companies that provide air traffic controllers, interacting in real time as though the simulated flight was an actual trip.

I attended a fake airplane convention in Hartford, Connecticut, with a friend of mine that participates via his own sophisticated desktop simulator. It was impressive to witness the level of professionalism that these hobbyists maintained. Interestingly enough, I have given my friend an opportunity to fly all three of the actual small airplanes I have owned over a period of time, and he has performed above average just on the basis of his fake airplane experience. That being said, with my friend and most sane people, that's where the fantasy ends.

Judging by the Horizon Air employee's unorthodox communication with ATC, it would seem that he wasn't familiar with many aspects of the US airspace environment. He certainly had trepidations about landing the airplane. He was familiar enough with his fuel status to know that the airplane couldn't remain airborne for very long. Based on my knowledge of the Q-400, I estimate he had less than an hour of fuel in the tanks.

It is possible that one engine flamed out first, and because Russell didn't have the training to manage the asymmetric thrust situation, the airplane became uncontrollable and crashed into the trees. Of course, it is also likely that the employee decided to accelerate his demise by pushing the nose into the terrain.

So should security procedures change? Perhaps, but not significantly.

I have a simple solution: Lock the cockpit door at all times and give access to only authorized personnel through a key and/or door code. For most airlines, this procedure can be easily implemented because the systems already exist.

In any case, this is a joy ride that will be thoroughly investigated from many angles. As a retired professional, I ask that you please try this at home on your desktop simulator -- and not in an actual airplane.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 37624

Reported Deaths: 1503
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hennepin12150785
Ramsey4805226
Stearns234519
Dakota228690
Anoka2180107
Nobles16626
Olmsted110115
Washington106940
Mower9452
Rice8357
Scott7004
Clay58538
Kandiyohi5701
Wright4565
Blue Earth4532
Todd4002
Carver3641
Lyon3092
Sherburne3075
Freeborn2900
Steele2281
Watonwan2160
Benton2143
St. Louis17715
Martin1635
Nicollet15912
Cottonwood1340
Goodhue1298
Winona12215
Crow Wing10612
Pine1030
Le Sueur981
Chisago971
Otter Tail931
McLeod880
Carlton850
Dodge840
Polk812
Chippewa781
Unassigned7637
Isanti720
Itasca6412
Waseca640
Douglas620
Meeker611
Morrison591
Murray580
Becker550
Faribault550
Jackson550
Sibley542
Pennington500
Pipestone371
Mille Lacs342
Renville322
Wabasha310
Brown302
Rock300
Yellow Medicine300
Beltrami290
Fillmore280
Houston250
Swift211
Norman200
Wilkin203
Redwood180
Cass152
Wadena150
Aitkin140
Big Stone140
Kanabec141
Koochiching141
Roseau130
Marshall120
Grant100
Lincoln100
Pope100
Mahnomen81
Clearwater70
Hubbard60
Lake60
Traverse50
Lac qui Parle40
Stevens40
Red Lake30
Kittson20
Cook10
Lake of the Woods00

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 30377

Reported Deaths: 720
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Polk6332179
Woodbury320644
Black Hawk219658
Buena Vista170711
Linn124282
Johnson12388
Dallas123529
Marshall104119
Story7513
Pottawattamie71911
Scott71910
Wapello70530
Crawford6752
Muscatine62444
Dubuque62122
Sioux4600
Tama46029
Wright3771
Louisa36013
Jasper32117
Plymouth3135
Warren2641
Dickinson2602
Washington2349
Hamilton1871
Webster1712
Cerro Gordo1471
Boone1451
Clarke1292
Clay1280
Allamakee1264
Mahaska11517
Shelby1140
Clinton1051
Poweshiek1048
Carroll931
Pocahontas931
Bremer916
Des Moines862
Henry863
Franklin840
Cedar811
Emmet800
Taylor790
Cherokee751
Monona740
Floyd702
Marion680
Hardin670
Guthrie644
Sac630
Benton621
Jefferson590
Osceola590
Jones560
Harrison530
Humboldt531
Lee532
Butler522
Iowa510
Buchanan501
Monroe506
Hancock490
Calhoun482
Delaware481
Madison422
Lyon410
Clayton403
Davis391
Fayette370
Mitchell370
Winneshiek370
Mills360
Palo Alto360
Grundy350
Kossuth330
Lucas304
Greene290
Howard290
Chickasaw280
Jackson270
Union270
Winnebago270
Ida230
Cass210
Appanoose203
Keokuk201
Page200
Van Buren190
Worth170
Audubon161
Adair150
Ringgold150
Decatur110
Montgomery102
Wayne100
Adams80
Fremont70
Unassigned70
Rochester
Clear
68° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 68°
Mason City
Scattered Clouds
66° wxIcon
Hi: 89° Lo: 66°
Feels Like: 66°
Albert Lea
Clear
70° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 70°
Austin
Clear
68° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 68°
Charles City
Clear
68° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 67°
Feels Like: 68°
HOT AND HUMID
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Latest Video

Image

Fans excited for Honkers return

Image

Honkers fall to St. Cloud in home opener

Image

Baseball returns to the Med City

Image

Seans 10pm Weather 7/3

Image

Leaders advocate for the homeless

Image

Fireworks Show During the Pandemic

Image

Pillars of the City Unveiled

Image

A hot day for a bike ride on the Douglas Trail

Image

Sen.Ernst tours homeless shelters, talks challenges

Image

Mask up Roachester Public Service announcement

Community Events