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 13, 2018 12:16 AM
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.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 143879

Reported Deaths: 3676
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto956999
Hinds9541193
Harrison6825105
Jackson6068116
Rankin523796
Lee480294
Madison4602102
Forrest367185
Jones344687
Lauderdale3343142
Lafayette313347
Washington3088106
Lamar281849
Bolivar237883
Oktibbeha237760
Lowndes228362
Neshoba2171113
Panola211047
Marshall207247
Leflore200789
Pontotoc193227
Monroe189577
Sunflower189554
Lincoln183964
Warren172157
Tate163349
Union160125
Pike160058
Copiah158840
Yazoo150638
Scott149929
Coahoma147342
Itawamba145533
Alcorn143724
Simpson143553
Pearl River142967
Prentiss139526
Grenada136344
Adams135948
Leake131643
Holmes124461
George121623
Tippah120930
Covington117234
Winston115824
Wayne115722
Hancock114137
Marion110746
Attala106233
Tishomingo106042
Newton102829
Chickasaw102332
Tallahatchie94727
Clarke88253
Clay86726
Jasper81121
Walthall74328
Stone72314
Montgomery71925
Calhoun71213
Carroll70514
Lawrence69914
Noxubee69017
Smith68616
Yalobusha67926
Perry65225
Tunica59519
Greene58422
Claiborne57416
Jefferson Davis54117
Humphreys52518
Amite50814
Benton48217
Quitman4786
Webster41614
Kemper40815
Wilkinson38422
Jefferson34011
Franklin3185
Sharkey30617
Choctaw3057
Issaquena1114
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 234080

Reported Deaths: 3459
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson30620491
Mobile19306358
Tuscaloosa12501148
Madison12410146
Montgomery12040232
Shelby980576
Baldwin826984
Lee753964
Morgan618247
Calhoun5997113
Etowah590564
Marshall581953
Houston507038
DeKalb463535
Cullman412636
Limestone404544
St. Clair398455
Elmore393961
Lauderdale382953
Walker349096
Talladega335942
Colbert296341
Jackson291924
Blount276336
Autauga263439
Franklin244833
Coffee233415
Dale226654
Dallas220231
Russell21803
Chilton216937
Covington212533
Escambia194431
Tallapoosa169290
Chambers168048
Pike155514
Clarke155419
Marion134535
Winston123723
Lawrence122436
Geneva11748
Marengo116924
Barbour116110
Pickens115318
Bibb114217
Butler113741
Randolph99821
Cherokee98924
Hale91631
Washington90018
Clay89423
Fayette84416
Henry8426
Lowndes78729
Monroe76811
Cleburne74414
Crenshaw70330
Macon70020
Bullock69019
Conecuh66814
Perry6686
Lamar6267
Wilcox62418
Sumter55322
Choctaw41713
Greene40217
Coosa3074
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Clear
46° wxIcon
Hi: 65° Lo: 55°
Feels Like: 44°
Columbus
Clear
47° wxIcon
Hi: 67° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 42°
Oxford
Clear
46° wxIcon
Hi: 64° Lo: 52°
Feels Like: 42°
Starkville
Clear
46° wxIcon
Hi: 65° Lo: 51°
Feels Like: 41°
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather