Joyride to Oblivion

Overcome by the fantasy of flight.

horizon joyride
How was a joyride by a ground service employee flying one of Horizon Air’s Bombardier Q400s even possible?Flying

Although it’s old news, the accident involving a joyride by a ground service employee flying one of Horizon Air’s Bombardier Q400s from Sea-Tac Airport on August 10 still resonates. The flight terminated in a fireball on Ketron Island, approximately 30 miles southwest of Seattle. After almost four decades as an airline pilot, I’m left shaking my head. Why would this seemingly under-the-radar (pun not intended), likable 29-year-old make a decision that jeopardized lives on the ground, ultimately ending in his untimely demise?

But before answering the million-dollar question, exactly how was such an event possible? First, all airline employees are vetted through the application process. Items such as background checks, criminal history, work experience and so forth are involved. Safety and security being the primary goals, it’s in the airline’s best interest to hire accordingly. Although physical and mental fitness is a major part of qualifications for pilots, ground-based service employees are not held to the same rigorous standards. So, moving ahead to the obvious question, unless a background check reveals treatment for mental illness, it would be unlikely that an applicant’s predisposition to temporary insanity would be uncovered.

In addition to the airline’s background check, the TSA completes a similar process, with the addition of determining potential terrorist connections. Then, the airport administration where the ground-based employee will operate also conducts a background check for the purpose of issuing a security identification display area (SIDA) badge, allowing that individual access to the air side of the terminal, i.e., the ramp.

In contrast, except for their main domicile, most pilots are not issued a SIDA badge and must remain within the “footprint” of the airplane when conducting preflight duties.

Armed with the above information, it’s not hard to understand how Richard Russell easily obtained access to the airplane. Wearing the appropriate uniform, company ID, airport SIDA badge and having the recognition of fellow employees, he operated in plain sight. Russell’s job description involved multiple duties, including baggage loading, aircraft cleaning and aircraft towing. Despite the fact that the airplane involved was reported to have been parked in an inactive area of the ramp for passenger transportation, it would not have been unusual for him to be seen climbing on board.

OK, so how did Russell manage to start, taxi and take off such a sophisticated piece of machinery — at a major international airport, no less? Most likely, it was a combination of both above-average familiarity with the airplane and, yes, a desktop simulator.

Horizon Air is a relatively small airline. As a three-year employee, Russell probably had the opportunity to engage with pilots or technicians he encountered on a regular basis during their preflight process. Perhaps he asked questions about starting the engines and/or observed crews in actual operations on the ground.

As for the task of operating the airplane to taxi and take off, that’s where the PC simulator most likely assisted his knowledge base. During his disjointed rant with ATC, Russell referred to “video games,” an implication that led me to consider this theory. For those unaware, the sophistication of desktop simulators is only limited by one’s checkbook.

After attending a “fake airplane” convention in Hartford, Connecticut, with a friend who is an avid hobbyist for such activity, I was impressed not only with the machines, but with the passion and professionalism of the participants. My friend had designed his own simulator, operating the device in his Manhattan studio apartment. It is complete with control yoke and rudder pedals. He oftentimes sends me YouTube videos of his very realistic conquest of anything from a Piper Arrow to a Boeing 777. Interestingly enough, one of his favorite airplanes is a Dash 8, the earlier derivative of the Q400. I’ve given my friend the opportunity to fly the three types of actual airplanes in my ownership at various times, and he has demonstrated above-average performance.

After attending a “fake airplane” convention in Hartford, Connecticut, with a friend who is an avid hobbyist for such activity, I was impressed not only with the machines, but with the passion and professionalism of the participants.

The fake-airplane enthusiasts who take their hobby seriously also subscribe to real-time ATC interaction via the internet. Fake controllers, most of them with actual ATC experience, issue clearances, provide radar vectoring and so on. A flight plan can be filed and flown in real time. The fact that Russell departed with no clearance and unorthodox communication with Sea-Tac controllers indicates some familiarity with the radios but limited phraseology knowledge. And let’s give credit to the professionalism of ATC for its efforts in minimizing casualties.

All of the above being said, it is still astonishing that Russell not only achieved flight without becoming an instantaneous ball of twisted aluminum, but also performed basic aerobatic maneuvers with a reasonable amount of finesse. On some level, it is insulting to my profession. None of us would consider operating a machine that we weren’t appropriately trained for despite our level of experience.

Back to the million-dollar question. Why? The general public considers flying an airplane a glamorous and visceral experience. All true, of course. Many believe the concept to be out of reach for various reasons. People are intimidated by the perceived ability required for such a complicated task. For some, flying is just not a financial reality. But the fantasy of flight is alluring. Most don’t act out their fantasies. Even those GA pilots who secretly hope for the day they hear the iconic PA, “Is there anybody on board who can fly this plane?” really don’t have any delusions of grandeur.

But if fantasy and temporary insanity are combined with a compelling allure that has been barely restrained, perhaps a Richard Russell is created. My concern is that the publicity of the event challenges another disturbed individual. How can such a joyride be prevented in the future?

The event does highlight shortcomings in operational and security procedures. It would be a disservice to the flying public if the situation weren’t analyzed. But let’s be honest, we can only mitigate risk, not eliminate it completely. A knee-jerk reaction because of one despondent lunatic who should have been encouraged to consult with a mental health professional must not dictate airline operations. Aircraft do need to be accessed by ground personnel. In my experience it has been accomplished responsibly and professionally.

Here’s a simple solution: If the airplane is in between flights, lock the cockpit door by use of a key accessible only to flight crew, flight attendants and mechanics. Or use the electronic keypad installed on most passenger airliners. Both systems are already available. One former FAA inspector suggested at least two occupants be in the cockpit. Assuming he meant ground service personnel, the multiple duties often assigned to such people would hinder their efficiency, a procedural issue that would have to be addressed.

Regardless of procedural outcome, the National Transportation Safety Board will not file a standard report on this unimaginable and bizarre accident. The FBI retains jurisdiction.

My advice to those considering a flying fantasy? Take a trip to your local flight school and consider the feasibility of constructive training. If training is not feasible, please try your fantasy at home, not in a real airplane.