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‘Insider threat’: How did a Horizon Air worker manage a commercial aircraft heist?

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‘Insider threat’: How did a Horizon Air worker manage a commercial aircraft heist?


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An airline employee stole an empty plane that he eventually crashed into an island near Seattle’s Sea-Tac airport. Listen to his final moments as he talks back and forth with air traffic control.
USA TODAY

The “suicidal” man authorities say stole a commercial aircraft Friday from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport apparently wasn’t trained to fly. But somehow he managed to commandeer the 76-seater plane without anyone stopping him.  

Officials from Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air detailed the man even had time to use a pushback tractor to back the aircraft up and rotate it around so he could take off. 

Footage of his hour-long joyride shows him doing loops in the air and other experienced – but dangerous –maneuvers leaving airline officials and experts puzzled that he was even able to successfully turn on the plane, let alone make it past security and get into the air. 

So how did a Horizon Air employee manage the heist? Here’s what we know:

Aircrafts aren’t secured, personnel are 

Commercial airliners aren’t like cars. There isn’t a key to unlock them or turn them on. 

Instead, airlines make sure the space in which the planes are kept is secure and the workers who have access to them have high clearance levels. 

That was the case of the 29-year-old employee who officials say worked for Horizon Airlines for 3 ½ years. He had multiple background checks, including a 10-year criminal check. He was “fully certified” to be on the tarmac and with the plane, according to Gary Beck, Horizon Airlines CEO. 

His job was to handle baggage loading and tow aircraft. He’d worked his shift Friday and was still in his uniform when he meandered over to a cargo holding area and hopped in the pilot’s seat of the Bombardier Q400 Horizon Airlines plane. 

The plane on Friday wasn’t scheduled to be used that night so additional safety measures and procedures that are in place for flight-ready planes, such as extra personnel attending the plane and locked wheels, may not have been in place, Beck said. 

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At a news conference Saturday afternoon, airline officials said the man was able to even use a tractor to back up the aircraft and rotate it completely so he could take off.

Officials said they are still interviewing people and examining footage to see exactly how the incident unfolded and whether anyone spotted him. 

Heavily complex machines

It’s not easy to even turn on a commercial aircraft. There isn’t a key or one button, rather multiple switches and levers used to make the aircraft operational. 

Airline officials believe the man who stole the plane doesn’t have a pilot’s license, which makes the whole episode that more puzzling. 

Beck noted that along with getting it off the ground, the man also was able to pull off “incredible” stunts in the air. 

“To be honest with you, commercial aircrafts are complex machines,” Beck said. “So, I don’t know how he achieved the experience that he did.” 

William Waldock, a professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said he was interested to hear what experience the ramp worker had because flying the plane would have required some knowledge for undoing several locks and brakes, and starting the engines.

”Somewhere along the line he had to figure out how to start it,” Waldock said. “Normally rampers wouldn’t have any reason to be in the cockpit.”

Airline officials said they are unsure if he had any experience at all flying planes, but over tower broadcasts, the man told air traffic controllers that video games provided some help. 

More: ‘Suicidal’ man who stole, crashed plane was 3 ½-year employee without pilot’s license

More: ‘Just a broken guy’: Suicidal plane crashes exceedingly rare

“I’ve played video games before so I know what I’m doing a little bit,” he was heard saying. “Everything’s peachy keen.”

The bizarre incident has highlighted one of the biggest potential perils for commercial air travel: airline or airport employees causing mayhem.

“The greatest threat we have to aviation is the insider threat,” Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent and transportation security expert, told The Associated Press. “Here we have an employee who was vetted to the level to have access to the aircraft and had a skill set proficient enough to take off with that plane.”

Southers said the man could have caused massive destruction. “If he had the skill set to do loops with a plane like this, he certainly had the capacity to fly it into a building and kill people on the ground,” he said.

Seattle FBI agent in charge Jay Tabb Jr. cautioned that the investigation would take a lot of time. Details, including the employee’s name, would not be released right away. Dozens of personnel were out at the crash site, and co-workers and family members were being interviewed, he said.

Authorities said there was no connection to terrorism. While the incident is jarring, it was too soon to point to any immediate changes coming out of the situation. 

“Safety is our No. 1 goal,” said Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Airlines. “Last night’s event is going to push us to learn what we can from this tragedy so that we can ensure this does not happen again at Alaska Air Group or at any other airline.”

Contributing: Bart Jansen, USA TODAY; The Associated Press 

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