How was a man able to pilot a stolen plane?
Investigators are working to determine how an airline employee described as “suicidal” stole an empty plane at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and flew it for nearly an hour on Friday before crashing it into a small island.
Alaska Air Group CEO Brad Tilden said at a news conference Saturday in Seattle that the man, identified by sources familiar with the investigation as Richard Russell, was “fully credentialed” and authorized to be working near the aircraft. “It is inside the security fence, and so no security violations were committed,” he said.
As a ground support employee, the man would get a great deal of access to the plane, and it would not be unusual to see him walking the tarmac near such aircrafts, Mark Rosenker, a former NTSB chairman and CBS News contributor, told CBSN on Saturday. He would be able to access the flight deck, start the plane and takeoff, Rosenker said.
Authorities said the 29-year-old Horizon Air ground service agent would have had what’s known as a Security Identification Display Area badge, commonly referred to as a SIDA badge, CBS News’ Kris Van Cleave reported.
Airport employees, as well as those requiring access to secured areas, are required to be screened for the badge. Employees are put through a criminal background check, and checked against the terror watch list. Authorities would have also checked the man’s immigration status and looked for any associations with people considered to have ties to terrorists.
Russell likely had his criminal record re-vetted during his employment, as TSA requires criminal background checks every two years through the FBI’s Rap Back program, which alerts to changes in someone’s record, Van Cleave reports.
However, there is not a mental health screening as part of the process.
A TSA official speaking on background said what happened in Seattle on Friday night is “an employee vetting situation” on the part of Horizon Airlines.
Pointing to the fact that the employee had an active SIDA badge, TSA believes there were not background security issues — no disqualifying criminal history and no terror activity; no watch list hits and no law enforcement advisories.
“We vet against someone who would hijack a plane for terrorism. This is an Horizon Air employee with a clean background, no known criminal activity, no terror relation, and wanted to commit suicide. TSA isn’t screening for that because you cannot. We’re the processor; the employee (Horizon) is the steward,” the source said.
The aircraft was stolen around 8 p.m. Friday and there were no passengers on board. Officials said the plane was in a “maintenance position” and not scheduled for a passenger flight that evening.
Authorities said the employee hooked a tow tractor up to the plane, turned 180 degrees, got in, fired it up, taxied to a runway and took off.
The question remains, however, how Russell was able to pilot the aircraft.
Authorities said on Saturday they aren’t aware of him having a pilot’s license, and that it was unclear how he was able to perform loops in the air before crashing on the small island in the Puget Sound. Authorities said the man had no prior flight experience.
“There were some maneuvers done that were incredible. To our knowledge, he didn’t have a pilot’s license,” Horizon CEO Gary Beck said Saturday. “To be honest with you, commercial aircraft are complex machines. They’re not as easy to fly as say a Cessna 150. I don’t know how he achieved the experience that he did.”
Russell reportedly told air traffic controller that he’d played enough video games to know how to fly a plane. Authorities on Saturday would not speculate whether the man learned to fly via video games.
Rosenker said on CBSN, however, that “there are video games that deal with the simulation of these aircrafts. … You could learn a great deal playing these types of games.”
Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent and transportation security expert, told The Associated Press, that the man later identified as Russell likely had some pilot training and military craft that could have prevented a tragedy. If the man knew how to do loops, Southers said, he likely had the skills to target people on the ground.
“The greatest threat we have to aviation is the insider threat,” he said. “Here we have an employee who was vetted to the level to have access to the aircraft and had a skill set proficient enough to take off with that plane.”
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