Air-Minded: Grand Theft Airplane

Last night an airport employee commandeered a Horizon Air Q400 twin-turboprop airliner at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

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Horizon Air Q400 (photo: Airliners.net)

He got it started, taxied to a runway, took off, and flew around Puget Sound before crashing on an island (he died in the crash, of course). He was followed by a pair of F-15s that had been scrambled from Portland, Oregon. Meanwhile, all traffic in and out of SeaTac was placed on emergency hold.

I started seeing posts about it on Twitter as it was happening, and continued to follow the story there as it unfolded. The first media reports didn’t begin to appear until after it was all over, one to two hours later.

I understand the young man was not an aircraft mechanic but a ramp worker, and that he took the plane from a maintenance area. It may not have been fully fueled, because in some of his radio calls to ground controllers he mentioned low fuel. It blows my mind the guy was able to get airborne at all, let alone start the engines or figure out how to work the radios and talk to air traffic controllers.

The details will come in time. Point is, he did it.

Sometime in the early 1990s I was at a party and a guy asked me what I did. I told him I was a USAF pilot. He told me, with a straight face, that as an enlisted Marine on Okinawa he had once stolen a C-130 Hercules, flown it around the pattern, and landed it. The whole time, as I looked for an avenue of escape, I was thinking “You’re lucky you’re not dead.” And also: “If you actually did that, you’d still be in Leavenworth.”

Trained pilots steal planes. There’s a market for stolen aircraft, often in drug running. There’s a story out there about a former American Airlines Boeing 727 that was stolen in Africa, never to be seen again. But again, the thieves were almost certainly trained 727 pilots and knew what they were doing.

It’s a whole ‘nother thing for an untrained person, a non-pilot, to swipe an airplane. When the guy at the party told me that whopper about taking a C-130 for a joy ride, not only did I reject his story outright, I would have said such a thing could never happen. But I would have been wrong. It has happened.

Yes. And not just last night in Seattle. In 1969, an enlisted crew chief at an American air base in England impersonated a pilot and took off in a C-130, headed for the States. Now granted, this guy worked on C-130s and knew the type well; still, the Herc is a big, complex, four-engine aircraft meant to be flown by a crew, not one person. It’s remarkable he was able to take off, but he did. Once airborne he got in radio contact with controllers and even set up a radio link with his wife in the US, but crashed in the English Channel. Some believe he was shot down by USAF fighters.

Nor has he been the only non-pilot military troop to steal a military airplane. There have been at least three others, and we’re only talking about the US military. Who knows what may have happened in other countries?

I want to come back to the F-15s that intercepted and followed the stolen airliner around Puget Sound last night.

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One of the two F-15s scrambled last night (photo: Russell Hill)

I’ve been scrambled on many an intercept mission (including one against an unidentified bogey that turned out to be a Korean Air 747 over the Bering Straits), but I never had to shoot anyone down or follow an intercepted aircraft until it crashed. I imagine the pilots who intercepted the stolen plane last night are relieved they didn’t have to shoot it down and that it crashed in an unpopulated area, but I also imagine they had a restless night afterward, and I feel for them.

Just as I feel for the military pilots who were scrambled, far too late, in a botched response to the hijackings on 9/11. Not because they were scrambled too late to do anything, but because had they intercepted one or more of the hijacked airliners before it flew into a building or crashed, they would have had to make an enormously fateful decision: to shoot down an airliner full of innocent people, with even more potential casualties on the ground below. I am thinking, too, of the three separate sets of F-16 pilots who in 1999 were scrambled to intercept and follow PGA golfer Patrick Stewart’s chartered Learjet from Florida to South Dakota, where it ran out of fuel and crashed, killing all on board (the cabin pressure had failed during the Learjet’s climb to altitude and all on board were unconscious or already dead from lack of oxygen).

Such a thing would haunt you. I know it would me.

But kudos to North American Air Defense Command and the US Air Force for getting its shit together after the horrible failures of 9/11. Those Portland Eagles were on it last night, and I take great pride in that.

© 2018, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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