I Used to Work for Horizon Air… It’s Actually Pretty Easy to Steal an Airplane
It was a pretty calm Friday night until the breaking news hit TV and social media of some guy stealing an airplane from Sea-Tac airport and going on a joy ride over Tacoma/Pierce County before taking his own life by crashing the plane onto a small island near Tacoma.
Then as we learned more details about the guy who stole the plane, you couldn't help but feel bad. His name was Richard Russell. He had a wife, friends and family who all loved and cared for him. He mentions in the radio transmissions with air traffic control, “I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. I’m going to disappoint them to hear that I did this. 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."
It was first reported that he was an aircraft mechanic. It was later confirmed that he was a ground services agent for Horizon Air and was "tow team" certified ... and then it all made sense. That's the exact job I held during my employment with Horizon Air back in 1999-2000. It actually is pretty easy for someone to get into the cockpit, fire up the engines and take off.
Richard was "tow team" certified, which means that Horizon Air trained him on how to use the buttons and controls in the cockpit. Having "tow team" certification means he was able to move the aircraft from place to another at the Seattle airport. This is mainly done when an aircraft either needs to be moved from one parking spot to another or because it's due to undergo maintenance.
Richard was trained on a lot of what it would take to fly an airplane -- like what frequency the radio needed to be on to speak to Air Traffic Control, how to turn on the engines and release the brakes. He also mentioned playing video games ... and there are some flight simulators out there that are extremely realistic. It's not that far-fetched to believe.
I've seen a lot of comments on Facebook is regard to security measures, access, etc. etc. Having worked for Horizon Air in the past, I wasn't shocked that he had the access he did and was able to pull this off. First, the aircraft he was flew was a Q-400 turbo prop. Depending on the gate in Seattle this aircraft is parked, it doesn't need to be "pushed back" by the ramp crew. It can just turn out of its parking spot and head toward the runway. In fact, that's how these planes are parked in Yakima. They just pull out of their parking spot and head toward the runway.
It is quite frequent that these planes will sit empty on the airport tarmac. I've experienced times when the flight crew on the inbound flight would pull in, unload, then leave the aircraft because the next outbound flight on that aircraft is hours away.
The rule with empty aircraft is that the door never stands open. It must be shut, which the flight crew will typically do prior to leaving. But that doesn't mean the ground crew doesn't have access. There were times I opened the parked aircraft door to get on board and remove garbage. It really isn't that out of the norm for a ground services agent to open that door and get on board.
As far as the pay that Richard mentions in his radio transmissions... He is correct. The pay starts at minimum wage and is partly the reason I left that industry. BUT, the benefits are pretty good. Free (stand-by) flights anywhere Alaska/Horizon flies for employee AND spouse, discounted airfare on partner airlines, profit sharing, etc.
I hope this provides a little more clarity as to how Richard ultimately pulled this off. ground services agents with all airlines are granted all sorts of access in secure areas. MAYBE this could have been prevented if it required TWO people in the cockpit to actually start up the aircraft engines? I don't know. Let's hope the airline does take steps to prevent this from happening again. Having lost my dad to suicide, I know how it feels to THINK that everything is all right ... but then that loved one takes their own life. It's such a blow emotionally to the entire family. It leaves you retracing every step over the last number of months wondering what signs were missed. Richard's family and friends are definitely in my thoughts and prayers today.