Aug. 13, 2018, © Leeham News: The bizarre theft of a Horizon Airlines Bombardier Q400 at Sea-Tac Airport Friday night by a 29-year old employee will take some time for investigators to unravel.
The employee, a ramp agent, appeared to have no other motive in mind other than a last joy ride before ending his life.
Questions about how he was able to have solo access to the airplane, which was parked in a far remote cargo area of the airport, start it up, taxi without challenge until turning onto a runway, taking off (apparently without fully releasing the brakes) and perform aerobatics before taking his final dive into the ground are just some of what investigators will look at.
Right away, news media asked how could this security breach happen?
The answer to this one is pretty obvious. When an “insider” decides to do something, it’s virtually impossible to defend against it.
Law enforcement officials have been living in fear for decades of the home-grown terrorist. We here in the USA have had success in deterring foreign terrorism on our soil since 9/11. There have been many incidents of home-grown terrorism that proved impossible to detect in advance.
In commercial aviation, there have been a few examples of insider threats going undetected.
Two high-profile incidents come to mind.
In December 1987, an employee of PSA, an airline that had been purchased by US Air Group, but which not yet had been absorbed into the US Air brand, was fired. His identity badge was not immediately confiscated.
This ground employee used his badge to bypass security. He boarded a PSA British Aerospace BAE 146. After the plane was at cruising altitude, he shot the supervisor who was a passenger. He entered the cockpit, murdered the pilots and the plane crashed, killing all aboard.
In April 1994, a FedEx employee was dead-heading on a DC-10 flight. He was facing dismissal and decided to hijack the airplane and crash it. It took all three cockpit crew members to fight off his attack, subdue him and—nearly incapacitated themselves—land the airplane.
The Horizon incident really demonstrates why the idea of allowing airliners to be flown by a one-person crew is just nuts.
There’s a provision inserted into the current US Federal Aviation Reauthorization bill to study allowing solo pilots on cargo aircraft.
It’s a mystery who’s behind this. Nobody owns up to its inclusion.
It’s an incredibly dumb idea, pilot shortage notwithstanding.
There have been several incidents (some disputed, some not) of investigators concluding pilots deliberately crashed an airplane, taking everyone with them.
Germanwings Flight 9525 in March 2015 is an undisputed example of a solo pilot in the cockpit deliberately taking control of the airplane and crashing it to commit suicide, taking with him all aboard. The captain had left the cockpit to use the bathroom. The co-pilot refused to open the door for his return.
This is another example of the insider threat, though it turned out there was plenty of advance evidence the co-pilot was mentally disturbed and never should have been flying. This is also why when one pilot leaves the cockpit, a flight attendant steps in—so the pilot is never alone.
Egyptair Flight 990 in October 1999 plunged into the Atlantic ocean. The flight originated in the US, so America’s NTSB was the lead investigatory agency. The conclusion: pilot suicide, something Egyptian and airline officials dispute to this day.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the one that disappeared into the Indian Ocean, is suspected by many of being a pilot criminal act. Others think it was a hijacking. Sleuth Christine Negroni believes pilot hypoxia is responsible.
Then there’s the much more common need for more than one pilot to handle an emergency.
You will never convince me one pilot and computer back-up—or some remote pilot on the ground—could have helped land US Airways 1549, United 811 or United 232. The problems were too numerous. The workload was immense. Just ask the five pilots on Qantas 32, the Airbus A380 (a two-man cockpit) that had the Rolls-Royce engine blow up.
The first one, 1549, had a 100% survival rate.
The second, 811, lost nine passengers who were sucked out of the airplane in-flight when a cargo door failed, ripping a huge hole in the fuselage of the Boeing 747. With two engines out and overweight, the flight crew coordinated to successfully land the crippled airliner with a 100% survival rate of the remaining passengers.
United 232, the emergency landing at Sioux City (IA) with famous footage of the crash landing, required coordination not only of the three cockpit crew members. A fourth pilot flying dead-head came to the cockpit to help. The crash landing killed 111—but 185 survived, thanks to crew coordination.
Qantas 32 made a successful landing, with a 100% survival.
Finally, there’s flight deck crew incapacitation.
It’s rare but it does happen when one of the pilots becomes ill, has a heart attack or dies in flight. The remaining pilot lands the airplane. In one instance, the pilot asked a flight attendant to join in the cockpit to assist with some of the workload.
If a solo pilot becomes ill, incapacitated or dies, then what? Yes, a remote pilot can land an airplane—if he knows what’s what.
An automated on board system can land the airplane. Category III landings do this all the time. But how will it know?
The Horizon incident last week didn’t involve a pilot, but it certainly brings to mind just how stupid the solo pilot idea is.