Why wasn’t the stolen Horizon Air plane locked?

A Horizon Air Bombardier Dash 8 Q400.
A Horizon Air Bombardier Dash 8 Q400.
Image: Reuters/Jan Seba
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Many questions remain after a Horizon Air ground crew employee stole an empty Bombardier Dash-8 Q400 for a deadly joyride in Seattle on Friday (Aug. 10): What was Richard Russell’s motive? Can you really learn to fly a plane from a video game? Did he intend to crash it?

There is one question, however, for which we have a definitive answer: How did he get into the parked plane to begin with?

According to reporting over the weekend from the Seattle Times, it wasn’t that complicated:

…there are no locks on the doors, which helps ensure a quick evacuation in event of emergency.

“You don’t want doors that have the possibility to lock on an aircraft,” said the Horizon Air pilot, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “That’s a system that if it were to malfunction in an emergency, everybody dies.”

Once the cockpit is entered, no keys are required to start the aircraft. Instead, a series of switches and levers must be pulled in a particular sequence to unlock the controls.

In other words, once Russel had managed to rotate the plane 180 degrees into taxiing position using a pushback tractor—a task he performed regularly as part of his job with Horizon—gaining access to the aircraft was not an obstacle. (There is generally security tape around the doors when a grounded plane is not in use, which allow the next crew to know if the plane has been entered.) A Horizon Air pilot told the Seattle Times that a “motivated” person could theoretically learn the series of controls necessary to start the plane using a program like Microsoft Flight Simulator.

So will this rather spectacular (and saddening) episode result in any changes to airport security? Skift pointed to some possibilities, including “ensur[ing] two employees, not one, work on an airplane at all times. Or maybe they will make it tougher for employees move aircraft on the ground.” But the fact remains that Russell was authorized to be in the area, having passed the various background checks required for such a level of access.

As Brad Tilden, chief executive of Alaska Air Group, the parent company of Horizon, said at a press conference on Saturday, it’s much harder to thwart a so-called insider threat:

The doors to the airplanes are not keyed like a car. There is not an ignition key like there would be in a car. The setup in aviation in America is we secure the airfield and then we have the mindset that we have employees that are credentialed and authorized to be there.