Last week, 29 year-old Richard Russell stole a Horizon Air Q400 airplane and took off from SEA-TAC airport where he worked as a ground service operator. Before fatally crashing more than an hour later, he went on a joyride complete with impressive acrobatic maneuvers. It has been reported that his only prior experience was playing videogames.
In the aftermath of the incident, there has been much discussion in the media about possible courses of action to remedy such a situation, i.e., where the bad actor is enabled by experience, sufficient knowledge and privileged access. Without that convergence, an average person would not have been able to pull off the theft, flight, and crash.
Some of the proposals have been draconian, others merely impractical. To evaluate them and come up with an appropriate but measured response, it’s instructive to review analogous incidents.
In the past, serious and even murderous events have taken place with similar elements to the Richard Russell case. This blog will lay out some of them.
EgyptAir Flight 990, October 31, 1999. The flight involved a Boeing 767-366ER, enroute from JFK to Cairo. There were 247 people on board. Approximately 62 nautical miles South of Nantucket, beginning from an enroute altitude of 33,000 feet, the First Officer, alone in the cockpit (the Captain was in the lavatory), pushed the aircraft’s nose down into a near-vertical dive, shut off the engines, and crashed the B767 into the Atlantic Ocean. All on board perished and the aircraft was completely demolished on impact with the sea. Nothing significant was recovered, only small pieces of debris. No bodies were found, only small body parts that allowed some limited forensic identification. The final “Probable Cause” was a suicidal act on the part of the First Officer. He murdered 247 people.
Germanwings Flight 9525, March 24, 2015. This is so recent that likely many readers will remember the accident. The flight involved an Airbus A320-211 that was enroute from Barcelona to Dusseldorf. Flying in a mountainous region some 62 nautical miles north-west of Nice (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence), the First Officer was (as in the EgyptAir case) alone in the cockpit with the Captain having left the cockpit. The First Officer locked the Captain out of the cockpit, started a descent from an enroute altitude of 38,000 feet, and crashed the aircraft into a mountain. The investigation concluded that the First Officer was suicidal. He murdered all 50 people who were on board the aircraft.
August 21, 2015 Thalys Train 9364 Attack. Train 9363, traveling from Amsterdam to Paris, having just crossed the border from Belgium to France, was attacked by a 25-year old Moroccan man armed with an AKM assault rifle and 9mm Luger pistol. He also had a bottle of gasoline and a box cutter in his possession. He carried a total of 270 rounds of ammunition. In an almost miraculous fortuity, the attacker was encountered by two young male passengers with military training who intervened. There was an initial struggle and some gunfire, but the attacker was finally subdued. There were no fatalities, but 3 train passengers were injured. The attacker was also injured and he was apprehended.
The Bastille Day Truck Attack. On July 15, 2016, a 31-year old French Tunisian man drove a truck down a crowded seafront street in Nice during a festive event on Bastille Day. He mowed down and murdered 84 people. In addition to the fatalities, another 202 people were injured in the attack, including 25 on life support and 52 in critical condition in the aftermath. This attack followed two earlier terrorist attacks within a year’s time in France, i.e., the Charlie Hebdo killings and the Bataclan massacre of 130 people in Paris.
Venice California Boardwalk Attack. On August 3, 2013, a young man was able to evade roadblocks and drive his car onto the Venice Beach “boardwalk”, a place where cars aren’t permitted. It was during a typical summer afternoon, and there were hundreds of people walking lazily on the boardwalk and attending the café’s there. The aftermath was horrifying and very bloody. At least 12 people were seriously injured, 10 of them hospitalized. Although only one death resulted from the attack, it could have been much worse.
Cessna 525 Crash, Payson, Utah, two days ago. At 2:30 AM in Payson Utah, a city some 60 miles south of Salt Lake City, the pilot intentionally flew a Cessna 525 into his own home, where his wife and a child were sleeping in the home. The pilot, Duane Youd, died in the crash but his wife and child were uninjured. Youd had just hours earlier been arrested for assaulting his wife, but had been released from custody before going up in the plane.
The above examples are by no means complete. For example, recall the October 31, 2017 attack on the West Side Highway bicycle path of New York where a man drove a truck into a crowd and killed 8 people.
After these disasters, a number of responses have been tried. For example, many airlines forbid its pilots to exit the cockpit, leaving behind just a single person. (However this restriction did not find its way into US Federal Regulations.) Police security has been increased, and some screening equipment has been installed in public places such as train stations. There will be much discussion coming in the next weeks and months. However, it is important that we all remember the past as we try to construct new remedies.
The photo above shows a Horizon Air Q400 of the same type as the stolen and crashed aircraft.