This past week there was a dramatic, and tragic, event at Sea-Tac airport in Seattle, Washington. An airport worker stole an empty Horizon Air Q400 aircraft and flew it erratically for over an hour before crashing and killing himself. Rather than the NTSB, the FBI is taking the lead in the investigation into this event, which is rightly being called a crime.
Even for an experienced pilot, stealing an airliner is no small feat. If the airplane is parked at a gate, it must be pushed back with a tow vehicle and then disconnected from the tow vehicle, which must them be driven out of the way. In this case it was parked remotely, at the cargo ramp, and could be taxied forward once the engines were started. And the cargo ramp is located adjacent to the takeoff position on runway 19L, so once the engines were started there was little to prevent the aircraft from initiating a takeoff.
Gaining access to the Q400 aircraft itself is relatively easy, as the main entry door has integral stairs, and there is a YouTube video showing door operation:
There is very little information regarding how the individual was able to gain access to the aircraft, start the APU, start the engines, taxi and take off without interruption. The facts as they are now known are:
This is not something that can be accomplished on a whim. I believe the FBI's investigation will reveal that the individual had planned this for some time. He most likely had the Microsoft Flight Simulator X program and had been practicing how to start the engines, adjust the condition levers, take off, raise the landing gear, and fly.
If this individual had simply wanted to steal the airplane and crash it, he likely would not have engaged in conversation with ATC. He was clearly a troubled individual, and it is really sad that an intervention was apparently not possible.
This is not the first such event. In 1969, Sergeant Paul Meyer, a C-130 aircraft mechanic stationed at Mildenhall Air Base in England, put on an officer's flight suit and stole a C-130, hoping to fly back to the United States. He had been under a lot of emotional pressure and desperately wanted to get back home to his wife of eight weeks. He was drunk when he stole the plane, which vanished after a few hours.
There will undoubtedly be a knee-jerk over-reaction in the industry, which will make it more difficult for legitimate crew members to initiate their flights, and which will likely lead to departure delays. Perhaps it would be more productive to educate the public on the signs of mental illness and how to help someone who seeks a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
If you have thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255. This line is available for 24 hours, every day.