By Bruce A. Smith
Serious security questions have arisen in the wake of a commercial airliner being stolen from Sea-Tac on Friday evening, August 10. Richard Russell, a “ground services employee” of Horizon Air, entered the cockpit of a twin-engine aircraft, called a Bombardier Q400, at approximately 7:30 pm and flew around south Puget Sound until 8:45 pm when he crashed into Ketron Island, about 30 miles southwest of Sea-Tac airport.
Chief among the questions are: how did he manage to steal the airplane, and how was he able to perform aerial stunts for nearly 75 minutes?
Russell’s exploits were video recorded by hundreds of people on the ground, including some here in Eatonville, and many marveled at his barrel rolls and aerial stunts. So, how did “Beebo,” as he was known to family and friends, learn to perform all those maneuvers?
Horizon Air officials and law enforcement spokespeople are claiming that Russell had no pilot’s license. Nor was he trained by Horizon to fly, although airline officials acknowledged on Sunday that Russell was authorized to assist in the towing and positioning of aircraft.
More fundamental is the question of how anyone can steal an airplane, especially at a busy airport – and from a secured area that requires all employees to have background checks and security clearances?
What is known about Russell’s capacities in the cockpit of the Q400 are not fully known. But, even more troubling is the lack of full transparency from officials and the media on what Russell knew and how he actually got his Q400 in the air.
On Friday night I caught some very interesting news from KIRO-TV’s (CBS) “Live” rebroadcast at 1am that has not been repeated fully. That lack of information diminishes public trust in the authorities, and muddies our understanding of the Russell caper.
To begin, media described Russell initially as a “mechanic” but then changed it to “ground services employee,” which is misleading. Typically, ground services employees are baggage handlers, and Russell certainly performed some of those duties as he posted on Facebook that he had lifted a lot of luggage in his job. But he also had other responsibilities, and one of them apparently put him in the cockpit of a Q400. One TV station reporter from KIRO did describe at 1am how airport staffers where giving him a detailed understanding at how it all happened; essentially:
The guy who stole the plane was part of a Tow Team, a two-member unit who operate the ‘pushback tractors’ that tug airplanes into position at the gates. In Russell’s particular tow team, which was a specialized unit for Horizon’s two-engine prop planes like the Q400, one guy drives the tractor and the other guy is in the cockpit steering the plane. Presumably the plane guy also turns on the lights, electrical systems and such. The tugs shuttle these “commuter planes” from the small, on-the-tarmac passenger gates, and return them to hangars or maintenance yards.
Some of this information is now reported, with numerous outlets stating that Russell jumped into a tractor-plane combination parked outside a Horizon Air hangar, turned the pair 180 degrees, and decoupled the plane.
But the underlying security questions remain unanswered.
Without being detected, apparently, Russell turned on both engines and taxied to the main runways on a cargo-only approach taxiway, according to KIRO’s Friday broadcast. This action confused all the pilots in the queue for take-off, and confounded the Air Traffic Controllers in the tower. Before anyone realized what was happening, Russell cut into the queue, sped up to take-off speed, and got airborne.
Russell was fully credentialed and had appropriate security clearances for all of his normal Horizon duties. Plus, media are reporting that co-workers and friends are claiming Russell was a nice guy, church-going, and married. His Facebook postings show a man curious and knowledgeable, well-traveled and intelligent, and his conversations with FAA personnel during his airborne jaunt reveal a fellow comfortable with flying an aircraft.
Therefore, adding to the huge security question of how Russell was able to steal a plane undetected – and the obvious lack of any response to thwart him – where and how did Russell learn to do all those barrel rolls? In his airborne transmissions he laughs about his “video game playing,” but was he alluding to Internet simulations? Was Russell a self-taught pilot and learned to fly a Q400 via flight simulation software? There are many programs that can do just that, and they are surprisingly inexpensive, with basic simulations packages range from $40-150.
But where did Russell develop the confidence and brazen boldness to jump Sea-Tac’s take-off queue, get in the air successfully, do barrel rolls, and zoom all over our skies – all the while having extended conversations with FAA at Seattle Center and possibly the F-15 pilots? Clearly, more than a good simulation program is at work here.
I asked a flight simulation expert, a fellow DB Cooper sleuth named Dave Shutter who has a simulation program that he uses to sim-fly a 727, the type of plane DB Cooper rode on his getaway flight in 1971.
Here is a simulation from Shutter that he says is an introduction to the whole process.
It shows the engine start up and initial runway taxiing. For a few hundred more dollars the simulation can be upgraded to include the more complex details of flying this airplane. Shutter told me in a phone conversation that he feels comfortable starting a real 727 and getting it airborne. “But I wouldn’t want to do a landing!” he told me emphatically.
In this simulation remember the 727 is a three-engine plane, so the start up requires three engine starts. I haven’t seen a full Q400 simulation, but the introductory videos that are available indicate that it is comparable to what it takes to fire up a 727 and get it going down the runway. That begs the question of who was around, or not, and the general security during the ten-fifteen minutes it took Richard to get airborne.
Shutter told me also that he feels Russell could have educated himself sufficiently to do all the flying that he performed last Friday night, including the stunts, but reiterated that landing a Q400, even with all the fancy simulations available might not be enough to land the plane successfully. “You have to remember that landing an airplane is essentially a controlled crash descent,” Shutter said.
This last point raises another question: how did Russell plummet into Ketron Island? Was it intentional? Was it a controlled crash? Most officials are currently stating that these scenarios are most likely. A “suicidal” act is how Sheriff Pastor has characterized Russell’s demise.
But another possibility is that officials seized control of the aircraft once they determined that Russell was no longer a reliable pilot and remotely flew the plane into the wild acres of Ketron via a hack of the Q400’s computers. Were officials afraid that Russell would run out of fuel over populated lands and crash – in one of his last audio transmissions Russell said he was down to 760 pounds of fuel – or that he would drive the plane intentionally into Tacoma in a fit of anger? If so, the motivation to take control of the aircraft must have been pressing.
But is such a procedure possible? A quick Internet search reveals that this option is feasible since most aircraft rely on a “fly-by-wire” system that integrates flight controls digitally with the Internet. However, most aviation experts say the firewall protections exist to prevent a computer hack. Ironically, one of the leading sources of information on this subject is found at RT (Russia Today)!
Further, in most likelihood the presence of F-15 fighters was arguably for public show. Shooting Russell out of the skies with rockets would produce an enormous debris field that could have caused many casualties on the ground, and damaged many homes and structures. A controlled crash into a place like Ketron was actually the most favorable outcome when viewed from this perspective.
So the most vital question now is: can the computers of the Q400 be accessed remotely? If so, what safeguards exist to prevent hackers from dropping other Q400s out of the skies? Could this be the new future of terrorist skyjackings?
Getting definitive answers to those kinds of questions will take a lot of digging, but in the meantime, here is a view of what types of Q400 flight simulations software are available on the Internet.
For an at-home flight simulation package, the Majestic Software MJC8 Q400 ‘addon’ is a classic example. It offers three levels of sophistication in its simulations. Specifically:
“The MJC8 Q400 addon for Microsoft Flight Simulator X and Lockheed Martin Prepar3d is a highly realistic rendition, built after the Bombardier Dash8 Q400 aircraft. There are 3 editions, differentiating in the price and the included features.
“‘PILOT’ is an edition, designed for home flightsimmers, who want a state-of-the-art hardcore add-on but do not require the complex features, such as the instructor panel system monitoring, circuit breakers simulation, failures simulation, or the shared cockpit.
“‘PRO’ edition is for advanced users, or airline pilots wishing to improve their knowledge of the Dash8 Q400 airplane. This edition has all the features of the PILOT edition, plus the Headup Guidance System simulation, the shared cockpit feature and several more (please see the comparative table below for the full list).
“‘TRAINING’ edition (in development) is dedicated to the airlines, wishing to have a good quality inexpensive solution for the Dash8 Q400 technical and procedural training for both technical staff and the flight crews.”
Prices for these programs range from 50 Euros to 130 Euros, or approximately $75-175 USD.
The types of computers necessary to handle these kinds of software packages are generally basic units such as “any PC capable of running Flight Simulator under MS Windows versions XP, 7, 8, 8.1, 10,” according to one supplier.
One simulation company, Flyaway, offers a five-minute video promo that shows the Q400 in flight and gives a viewer a sense of what the cockpit looks like, and the surrounding landscape as one flies.
To view a video simulation of a professional Q400 aviation flight simulator, the kind professional pilots would actually use in their training: