Popular Mechanics: When Ground Crew Steal Airplanes

The joyride started just before sunset.

On Friday, Horizon Air ground service agent Richard B. Russell got in one of the airline’s Bombardier Q400 aircraft and took off from Seattle’s SeaTac Airport. In audio recordings released over the internet, Russell can be heard chatting in an upbeat, enthusiastic tone with the air traffic controllers trying to talk him down.

Onlooker John Waldron took video that shows the plane rolling inverted at low altitude, then pulling into a half-loop in a aerobatic high-g maneuver called a “split S.” Whether through skill or luck, Russell managed to pull the plane out of its rapid descent just above the wave tops. F-15 fighter jets scrambled to intercept the Q400, which ultimately crashed into Ketron Island, about 30 miles from the airport.

The incident is bizarre and tragic, but it is not uprecedented. In fact, there have been a number of occurrences in recent decades in which ground personnel made off with aircraft.

May 23, 1969. U.S. Air Force Sergeant Paul Meyer, a 23-year-old crew chief stationed at Mildenhall Air Base in England, stole a C-130 cargo plane and took off. While in the air, Meyer, who’d been married eight weeks before, called his wife and said, “Guess what? I’m coming home!” But it was not to be. An hour and 45 minutes into the flight, Meyer crashed into the English Channel. Meyer had recently been passed over for promotion and had been arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct.

August 22, 1979. Recently fired airline mechanic Armando Nieto Jaramillo, 23, stole a military HS-748 transport plane from Bogotá-Eldorado Airport and crashed it soon after takeoff, killing himself and three people on the ground.

July 4, 1986. Marine Corps lance corporal Howard A. Foote, Jr. stole an A-4M Skyhawk ground attack jet from Marine Corps Air Station El Toro and took it on a 45-minute aerobatic joyride before returning to base and landing safely. Foote was an experienced glider pilot and had undergone 100 hours of simulator flying in the Skyhawk and had hoped to become a military pilot before his ambitions were derailed by health issues. Foote served four and a half months in the brig and later went on to become a test pilot in civilian life.

July 13, 1994. A Russian Air Force engineer made off with an Antonov An-26 transport plane from Kubinka Air Force Base near Moscow. He flew until the plane ran out of fuel and died in the ensuing crash.

May 25, 2003. Ben Charles Padilla, an aircraft mechanic who held a private pilot’s license and was a certified flight engineer, was repairing a 727 airliner in Luanda, Angola for a Florida-based company named Aerospace Sales and Leasing. Padilla and an a recently hired assistant boarded the plane, taxied it to the runway, took off, and head out over the Atlantic Ocean. Neither the men nor the plane has ever been seen again. Some speculated the plane was stolen as part of an insurance scam, or perhaps taken by terrorists who planned to use it as a flying bomb, but the truth remains unknown.

Lastly, we’ve been reporting a lot only on the most famous case of suspected pilot suicide, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, and this weekend’s tragedy bears at least a few similarities. During an exchange with air traffic controllers, Russell mentioned he had some experience using flight simulator software. “I don’t need that much help. I’ve played some video games before,” he said. MH370 captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah was a flight-sim enthusiast who is known to have taken a simulated flight path similar to the one authorities believe the plane ultimately took into the southern Indian Ocean. On the other hand, Russell was reported to have been profoundly troubled, whereas Malaysian authorities were unable to find any evidence that Shah suffered from mental illness or was undergoing any kind of stress in his life.

It’s not yet known exactly what pre-existing psychological conditions Russell may have had, but in the course of his conversation with air traffic controllers he expresses racial resentment. At one point he asks the controller, “Hey, do you think if I land this successfully, Alaska [Horizon Air’s parent company, Alaska Airllines] will give me a job as a pilot?” Told, “You know, I think they would give you a job doing anything if you could pull this off,” Russell replies, “Yeah right! Nah, I’m a white guy.”

Acts of wanton violence by white men bearing racial grievance have been on the rise during the Trump administration, which has embraced white nationalism and adopted openly racist policies.

[Note: A version of this story originally ran on 8/13/18 on Popular Mechanics.]

30 thoughts on “Popular Mechanics: When Ground Crew Steal Airplanes”

  1. Amazing video, Rich was flying the stolen Dash 8 like a pro. Hard to believe he could do this on his first flight, even with some flight-sim experience.

    Apparently his escapade ended when he crashed the aircraft on a small island. Wonder why he chose this spot for his suicide, where he could easily have killed someone, rather than just dropping it in the sea?

  2. I never had a pilots license but when I served in the military as ground crew plane captain, I spent enough time with our turboprop aircraft to have been capable to go through start-up and take-off procedures on my own if I wanted to. I was big into flight sims back then too, so knew a lot about instruments and navigation. With sim realism (cockpit modeling) having come a long way since then, I’m guessing one could get very familiar with specific aircraft type. I’m also wondering if engine start-up would be the hardest part to learn, since sims may not focus on that aspect to much?
    Looking at the available video from yesterday, I would say it more luck than talent that kept him aloft during all those crazy stunts he was doing. Extremely fortunate outcome considering the local population density and air traffic.

  3. @Cliff, regarding your last post in the “Seven Takeaways” comments section:

    As you are willing to submit as evidence that United States officials suspected a Southern Indian Ocean crash due to certain hydrophone readings, are you withdrawing your prior hypothesis that the United States shot down the aircraft?

    Surely the U.S. military would have known where the aircraft was, if it shot it down, and so wouldn’t need to rely on hydrophones—no?

    I say this because it’s highly unlikely that such data was leaked, by a rogue actor, as perhaps the blogger you are quoting suggests, rather than being released intentionally. It’s my understanding that the U.S. underwater sound surveillance system is so secretive it’s data is encoded before transmission and can then only be read in a secure facility.

  4. Referencing the prior topic,
    I include this post from Reddit by,

    u/pigdead on 8/11/18
    “The turnback
    (keep hold of your hat)”

    “The most natural turnback would just be a semi-circle”…… “a speed around the semi-circle of 490 knots……..”

    “The latest report shows that the turnback…….started at N07.05.7 E103.47.1, ended at N07.12.7 E103.38.7 and took 130 seconds.”

    “The constant lateral acceleration of this manoeuvre is 6.1m/s2 or 0.6g.”

    “That acceleration is similar to a sports car going from 0 to 60mph in 4.5 seconds……..”

    “Anyone standing would have been thrown violently across the plane.”

    “It is way outside the autopilot envelope (25 degrees of bank) so it must have been manually flown.”

    “The Safety Investigation Report notes that the investigators simulator attempts failed to reproduce this turn……”

    “The turnback must have started and ended pretty close to where they lost/regained radar contact…”

    “This appears to me at least, to have been a very violent manoeuvre.”

    He went on to say,

    “Yesterdays radar release
    shows (I think) that 49 seconds after this call the plane is flying off course and shortly afterwards performing a manoeuvre that would cause chaos in the passenger cabin (likely in darkness).”

    Monopolizing hundreds of passenger and crew in order to gain access to the cockpit has never been a notable theory.

    If control of the plane was siezed from the pilot(s), by a hijacker(s) with pilot skills, it is far more likely the takeover was instigated by a trusted individual with either access to, or knowledge of, entering the cockpit without immediate suspicion.

    If this new information narrows the time frame, the implication of Captain Zaharie would need to include either an already locked out co-pilot, making everyone on the plane aware of the hijacking or Captain Zaharie with a full agenda to flawlessly execute within 49 seconds.

    On Twitter, August 10,
    Victor Iannello said;

    “Sources are now coming forward with what I concluded in Nov 2016: The six coordinates found on the captain’s computer with takeoff at KLIA and ending in fuel exhaustion in the SIO were all from the same simulation session.

    These “sources…now coming forward” are from the Geoffrey Thomas article (linked below).

    Anyone following MH370 from the beginning knows quoted “sources”
    without identification can equal precarious information.


    “The final report on the disappearance of MH370 is a “cover-up” of the captain’s actions according to two industry sources in Malaysia.”

    “source” 1

    “One source said, the “seven flight waypoints” recovered from Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah’s flight simulator program…..which replicated MH370’s
    final flight — were all from one session.”

    “source” 2

    “Another source, that works as a contractor to Malaysia Airlines told AirlineRatings.com that “very early on” after MH370 disappeared the airline’s operational management said, “Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah was responsible.”

    It seems far fetched that a “contractor for Malaysia Airlines” was privy to the confidential information of “the airline’s operational management”,
    while the other “source” had no accorded description.

    Cherry picking is the act of pointing at individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position.

  5. @Scott O
    I have been reading and listening to French NoK Ghislain Wattrelos recently and he uses the French word ‘abattu’ (past tense of ‘abattre’) quite a lot in his interviews. ‘Abattu’ could be loosely translated as ‘shot down’ but more accurately means ‘felled’ or ‘brought down’.
    The word ‘abattu’ was on my mind when I wrote up my previous comment. In the case of MH370, instead of ‘shoot down’ I think the better English word is ‘brought down’.

    ‘Shooting down’ implies a shooter having to take aim. The term ‘brought down’, however, could be an automated process, not necessarily involving a ‘shooter’. For example, if an airline went off the official flight plan filed with the authorities, there may be an automated mechanism designed to takeover the flight and direct the plane towards a predetermined piece of uninhabited terrain or body of water, or an autolanding at an airport (see SAFEE and SOFIA, 2 european initiatives along these lines).
    As to how exactly this automated mechanism is triggered is probably a secret that only a few people know.

    As I have consistently maintained, the initiative to hijack the plane was made probably by the Russian secret service. They used an existing procedure or protocol designed to handle hijacked airlines for their own nefarious purposes by either letting the aircraft run out of fuel and crashing it, or forcing the authorities to ‘bring down’ the plane, and letting the US take the blame either way.
    This would pit US against China and take attention away from Crimea, and pressure away from Russia. The US however, decided to dictate media coverage on their own terms thus covering up the horrifying reality of the incident and buying some time to figure out the best way to disclose the truth.

    The true location of the crash site may or may not be known to the US and allies.
    But they probably know exactly how it ended up there because they may very well have had a role in it. Until recently, I used to believe the official narrative about the plane having crashed somewhere along the 7th BTO arc. I ignored, and was not curious about other anomalous details that pointed to a different location for the crash. Now that the BTO arcs are off the table, these other details, such as the Curtin ‘boom’, have become more significant.
    If the Curtin ‘boom’ is indeed the sound of MH370 crashing close to Diego Garcia, the US Navy may have caught the sound on their hydrophones and may know the approximate location of the crash.

    I choose to write my propositions as clearly and as simply as possible so that I can get my head around what those propositions entail. Often, I don’t bother to support them, and I discard them as easily as I change soiled socks. I write this as much for myself as for an outside audience, and my intention is to get at the truth. This is why, despite my recent change of opinion of Jeff Wise, I will always be grateful to him for allowing me to write on his blog.

  6. Opinion of Captain Zaharie’s guilt requires negating the factor of his clean background check by investigators It would also require a uniform invalidation for the clean background checks of all passengers and crew.

    The subsequent distinction of guilt between pilot(s) and crew would then be identifiable only by lacking ability to fly the plane as they all had the potential to access the cockpit.

    A crew member could help facilitate the process of a skilled pilot gaining entry to the cockpit.

    The other distinction would now involve two individuals incapacitating two other individuals, rather than one individual incapacitating one other.

  7. @ Susie Crowe
    “Opinion of Captain Zaharie’s guilt requires negating the factor of his clean background check by investigators It would also require a uniform invalidation for the clean background checks of all passengers and crew.”

    Very valid point!

  8. @CliffG:
    “… For example, if an airline went off the official flight plan filed with the authorities, there may be an automated mechanism designed to takeover the flight and direct the plane towards a predetermined piece of uninhabited terrain or body of water, or an autolanding at an airport (see SAFEE and SOFIA, 2 european initiatives along these lines).

    As to how exactly this automated mechanism is triggered is probably a secret that only a few people know…”

    Not sure that the remote control system needs a mechanism or is even built into the aircraft’s flight control software. As all modern passenger jets are fully controlled by the FCCs all the elements necessary to remote fly them are already available. All that is needed is a way to use the Satcom link to download the uninterruptible auto pilot software (UAP) to the FFCs, using something similar to an SQL injection, for example. Once the UAP is installed, the Satcom link would be used to monitor and send control messages so the plane can be landed at a suitable safe destination.

    The benefit of this approach would be that it is virtually impossible for anyone to discover exactly how the UAP works and this would make the system effectively 100% hacker-proof. This system could be a real life saver in situations where pilots become incapacitated, as well as for its intended use in sky-jack situations.

  9. @JeffW
    I eagerly await your new article…the Seattle incident is fascinating has a number of MH370 parallels in my view.

  10. @TBill, Thanks for that link. I suspect a lot of people don’t realize how granular the latest flight sims are in their level of realistic detail.

  11. @CliffG

    [native french speaker here]
    It seems to me that when Ghislain says “abattu”, he really means “shot down” as in “intentionally shot down by a missile/explosive device of some sort”.

    I think he would have used a different sentence if he meant “brought down” as in “remotely controlled flight into terrain” (maybe something like “abattu à distance”, translated roughly by “remotely destroyed” ?)

    However, I’m no linguist, that’s just my personal opinion and he could use that vague wording to leave some mystery behind what he’s really thinking about.

  12. @JeffW
    Yes indeed for example the PMDG B777 model is very near professional grade. It is not a “game” unless we are talking about a game that gives near-realism to all aspects of conducting a commercial flight as a pilot. Starting right from the airport gate you have to go through the cold start-up from scratch. I mean, I mostly skip that part and just take off, but cold start is part of the program.

  13. Boris Tabaksplatt said:

    “All that is needed is a way to use the Satcom link to download the uninterruptible auto pilot software (UAP) to the FFCs, using something similar to an SQL injection, for example.”

    ACARS could do that. It can already upload a new flight plan and make it active – the pilot has to approve it at present, I think, but there could be an override ‘exec’ flag.

    Download the UAP software using ACARS, make it active and the rest of the controls read-only, disable all comms, then upload and action a new flight plan. Maybe you could you also open the bleed valves?

    Only problem would be the pilots desperately turning breakers off in an attempt to disable it.

    Maybe the lack of ACARS and other comms info in the logs after IGARI is because it would have shown what was really going on?

    Or could the satcom have been switched to another satellite during that time? Then back again at 18.24, hence the re-login.

  14. @Rodney Small, as much as I may believe a stowaway or passenger aided in the disappearance of MH370, the Neon Nettle, is not at all a reputable news source. Please google Neon Nettle and hoax and you will see that Snopes and Politifact both discredit it and Wikiepedia lists it as a “fake news” site.

  15. @Cliff G., thank you for your response. I do find your posts quite thought provoking–even when I disagree, or vehemently disagree, with them–and hope they continue. I admire your willingness to commit thinking to paper and the same willingness to discard that thinking, though at times the result may seem like most elegant trolling!

    As for the remote flight system you mention, that seems to be the hottest button, and one I cannot speculate on other than to say, it would certainly simplify on-board logistics (!) and perhaps only require someone to bleed the plane of its oxygen during a wider, induced systems outage. It could also explain the rapidity and severity of the turn-back. But as I said, that seems to be a system that people nearly come to blows over–more so than the plane’s destination.

    As for your opinion of Jeff, I must have missed than and am sorry for it. I find his stewardship of this blog to have been terrific despite its difficulty, allowing fo quite a wide breadth of opinion you’d not find elsewhere while still remaining sensible and coherent. It’s rare to find such divergent opinions AND such civility in post comments anywhere.

  16. @Scott O:
    “…as much as I may believe a stowaway or passenger aided in the disappearance of MH370, the Neon Nettle, is not at all a reputable news source…”

    Yes, NN is not a source I would depend on either, but this story is also being run by the MSM and is in the Independent…


    Not sure why this very old idea is being dredged up again? Probably just part of the ongoing Operation Chaos, which has surrounded the MH370 affair since day one.

  17. @TBill, Thanks for that link. I wonder if it’s a copycat crime. Pretty ridiculous of the police officer to say “We can only speculate what the motive is behind it,” given that a domestic abuser was clearly trying to murder his wife and child.

  18. @JeffW
    Re: “Troubled” pilot
    I have seen no reference to prior mental troubles of the Q400 “pilot” except obviously when he was in the aircraft he admitted that on the radio. Everyone else seems to say complete shock. I realize FBI is not yet ready to disclose evidence.

  19. @CliffG
    Posted August 12, 2018 at 11:48PM
    “I write this as much for myself as for an outside audience, and my intention is to get at the truth.”

    We are kindred souls on this one.

    Trying to open dialouge of valid information that is unfamiliar, or information that may have been unjustly cast aside, remains challenging.

    Theoritical discussion has not been a popular application.

  20. Shaking my head from discussion on VI’s about the “Chinese Matryrs Brigade” email. I had not read, only discussion of it until today when @Nederland posted the English translation.

    The only modicum of credibility in the email that was discussed,
    was an alleged prediction the plane would never be found.

    Perhaps I read it too quickly, nowhere did I see a statement of the plane never being found.

    It referenced the search as,

    “If you want to search for them, the only way is to see Allah yourselves! Therefore I would like to give you the following suggestion: stop searching immediately and stop doing pointless things.”

    I am confused how that translates to a revelation, of the plane never found.

    What DID catch my eye, were these words that actually appeared and were not paraphrased,

    “I have to say that Malaysia will have to face all kinds of incidents in the future. Of course, it does not have to be plane crash.”

    The above statement, DOES appear as a very accurate revelation but was ignored in discussion. The statement that did receive the attention was not nearly as profound or even accurately portrayed.
    Am I missing something here?

  21. @Susie, This does seem outrageous. But I wonder if the point they’re trying to make is to mock Pakatan Harapan for claiming that they could find MH370 within their first 100 days of taking power.

  22. @Jeff Wise
    That is the way it appears to me but without a disclaimer it should be viewed as media malfeasance and they need to be called out for it.

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