There has never been an airplane hijacking like the one executed as dusk approached at Seattle on Friday. Never has an otherwise empty commercial airplane parked in a maintenance area, been taken over, its two engines started, taxied out to a runway as though for a scheduled flight and took off apparently under full control.
That scenario is the first problem. How long did it take the air traffic controllers in the tower at Seattle to realize that a rogue airplane was joining regular airline traffic? Could anything have been done to block the airplane before it took off?
At that point, nobody knew if this was a terrorist action. The Q400 turboprop is less than half the size of the jets used on 9/11 against the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, but, loaded with fuel, it was still capable of being a flying bomb that could have taken out any of the skyscrapers in downtown Seattle.
Luckily this was not a terrorist, but 29-year-old man Richard Russell, who worked as a ground handler for Horizon Air, the commuter arm of Alaska Airlines. Ground handlers direct the handling and loading of airplanes at the gate. The job doesn’t require flying skills, yet the hijacker had in some way acquired a significant level of competence in handling a sophisticated airplane — certainly confident enough to have selected a target building and flown into it.
How Russell acquired those skills is still unknown. A long-time professional pilot told The Daily Beast: “He had considerable flying skill, he wasn’t just a mechanic.”
Eyewitnesses recorded aerobatic maneuvers for which the 76-seat Q400 was not designed to make, and if performed without skill, could have resulted in the airplane breaking up in the air.
“Both his loop and his roll seemed pretty well executed,” said the pilot, “without either stalling or pulling the wings off.”
He could have acquired those skills either directly, by learning to fly a small private plane under instruction – or even by using the Microsoft Flight Simulator. (At one point, talking to air traffic controllers about the airplane’s systems he says “I’ve played some video games before.)
All of this suggests a certain level of fantasy fulfillment. Here was someone working close to airplanes and flight crews to whom the life would seem glamorous and far more rewarding than his own work.
However, that falls far short or answering why the fantasy, if it was that, was able to be fulfilled – tragically for the relatively short time he was in the air until he died by crashing on a small island in Puget Sound.
His exchanges with air-traffic controllers are harrowing to listen to. The controllers try to guide him — they refer to him as Rich and Richard — to a nearby military field, Joint Base Lewis-McChord. But he responds, “Oh man, those guys will rough me up if I try to land there. I think I might mess something up there too. I wouldn’t want to do that. They probably have anti-aircraft.”
The controller assures him that they do not have ground-to-air defenses, “We’re just trying to find a place for you to land safely.”
“I’m not quite ready to bring it down just yet,” he said.
During his aerobatic maneuvers he sounds strikingly confident of his technique in a way that an experienced pilot would be – “I think I am going to try to do a barrel roll and if that goes good then I am going to go nose down and call it a night.”
Russell seemed more concerned that his fuel was running low. “I’m down to 2,100 [pounds],” he says. “I started at 30 something. I don’t know what the burnage is like on takeoff, but it burned quite a bit faster than I expected.”
Minutes after that, he crashed. “I feel like one of my engines is going out or something,” he said before plummeting to death.
With an unprecedented event like this, there will be a rush to judgment on what it reveals as weaknesses in airport security procedures. But it’s doubtful if any procedure could have successfully caught beforehand a problem as specific to an individual as this obviously is.
Ground handlers, like everybody who is permitted to work on what is called “airside” of airport terminals, where the airplanes are parked, cleaned and loaded, are subjected to security screening and wear ID tags at all times.
But security screening and regular background checks can’t pick up changes in a person’s behavior. Only observation by close family and colleagues can do that and in one horrendous case all those checks failed: Andreas Lubitz, the copilot of a Germanwings flight in 2015 who waited for the captain to leave the cockpit, sealed the cockpit door, and flew his Airbus A320 deliberately into a mountain, killing himself, 144 passengers and six crew.
In that case, strict German laws about the privacy of personal medical conditions had prevented doctors from alerting the airline that Lubitz, who feared without reason that he was going blind, was becoming suicidal.
There is, sadly, some evidence in this case of suicidal intent. Even the victim himself seemed to have been surprised by what he was doing. He told the controller: “I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this. I would like to apologize to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it until now.”
What does seem to be in need of urgent investigation could be described as “negligent inattention.” How could the hijacker move without challenge in a maintenance area toward the airplane, in broad daylight? How could he remain unobserved as he started the engines and began to taxi out among lines of other airplanes? Was the area covered by security cameras and, if so, why was anomalous activity not spotted?
If the core of the problem is human, whether benign as it appears in this case, or more urgently if it had been malign, how did the systems fail?