The crash of an aircraft taken by an airline employee at Seattle-Tacoma international airports is expected to have implications for airport security and screening around the world, an aviation expert says.
On Saturday August 11, a Bombardier Q400 turboprop operated by Alaska Air subsidiary Horizon Air was stolen from a maintenance hangar at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
The theft was conducted by a Horizon air employee, described in media reports as a ground service agent.
The 29-year-old, who was the only person on board the 76-seater aircraft N449QX, took off without clearance from Runway 16C a little after 2000 local time.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) scrambled F-15C fighter jets from a military base in nearby Portland to tail the Q400 and try to direct the rogue aircraft out towards the Pacific Ocean, with initial fears it could be an act of terrorism.
“The fighters were directed to fly supersonic to expedite the intercept,” NORAD said in a statement.
FAA reported stolen a/c from Sea-Tac airport and requested DoD assistance. NORAD launched 2x F-15 who intercepted the a/c and were working to redirect the aircraft out over the Pacific when it crashed. The fighters did not fire upon the a/c. Event pass to local rescue and law enf pic.twitter.com/f9wQ6ew80L
— U.S. Northern Command (@USNorthernCmd) August 11, 2018
Air traffic controllers tried to get the man to land the aircraft, according to audio exchanges posted online.
Video footage online showed the Q400 apparently conducing rolls and flying low over water before crashing on Ketron Island in Pierce County about an hour after taking off.
— Sentinel (@StratSentinel) August 11, 2018
Stolen horizon airplane crashed into Ketron island. Preliminary info is that a mechanic from unknown airlines stole plane. Was doing stunts in air or lack of flying skills caused crash into Island
— Pierce Co Sheriff (@PierceSheriff) August 11, 2018
The incident shut down the airport for some hours.
Authorities including the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) were investigating the incident.
While it was still too early to know exactly the full details of what took place as the investigation was in its early stages, Professor Greg Bamber from Monash University said the initial indications were that it was a one-off event.
“There will be a thorough investigation and the aviation industry is good at doing these sorts of investigations in a non-blame way,” Prof Bamber told Australian Aviation on Monday.
“And then rolling out the conclusions of investigations so that we can learn from them around the world for our security and safety and practices and so forth.
“It is a miracle that no one else was hurt in this case other than the individual himself.”
The Seattle Times reported officials form Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Alaska Air and Horizon Air would meet to discuss any potential changes to security policy.
However, aviation security consultant Jeff Price told the newspaper any changes could have a big impact on the day-to-day running of an airport.
“There’s not a whole lot you can do here that doesn’t significantly impact the operations” of airports, Jeff Price said.
Meanwhile, transportation security expert, Erroll Southers told The Associated Press “the greatest threat we have to aviation is the insider threat”.
“Here we have an employee who was vetted to the level to have access to the aircraft and had a skillset proficient enough to take off with that plane,” Southers, a former FBI agent, said.
Alaska Airlines chief executive Brad Tilden said the airline was giving authorities its full support and cooperation in working to find out what happened.
“I want to share how incredibly sad all of us at Alaska are about this incident. Our heart is heavy for the family and friends of the person involved,” Tilden said in a statement.
“With these investigations underway, our focus will remain on supporting the family of the individual involved, the broader Alaska and Horizon family, and our communities and guests.”
VIDEO: Alaska Air chief executive Brad Tilden and Horizon Air chief executive Gary Beck speak to reporters on August 11 2018, from Alaska Air’s YouTube channel.
In addition to the investigation of what happened, Prof Bamber said he expected airports, airlines and regulators around the world would in due course conduct a review of their own security protocols in response to the incident.
“I don’t think there will be a knee-jerk reaction, but everyone is going to look a little bit more carefully about how aeroplanes are secured and who has access to them when they are on the ground,” Prof Bamber said.
“It seems astonishing that an individual can just get on board an aircraft and access a cockpit and fire up the engines and take it away.
“So I think people will be revisiting their security provisions around the world following this case although it is a one-off.
“We probably need to do a bit more in terms of security and screening than we already do.”
The mental health of those at the controls of an aircraft has been a contributing factor in a number of cases over the years.
The most recent was the Germanwings tragedy in 2015, where the pilot locked his co-pilot out of the flightdeck and crashed the Airbus A320 into the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board.
However, the pilot at the controls in that case was authorised to have access to the aircraft, as compared to the ground service agent in the incident at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Prof Bamber, who has also written a book into the aviation industry Up in the Air, said the mental health of workers was a difficult area for employers as it was difficult to effectively screen for.
“People rarely self-report to a high degree, even when they are having medicals. If they want to cover up the issue they can usually do so if they try,” Prof Bamber said.
“In this case the explosives were, metaphorically, in the head of the individual concerned. How you can scan against that kind of mental condition is very difficult to know.
“We don’t want to turn our airfields into armed fortresses or prison-like establishments, we don’t want to over-react.”
In Australia, Lifeline (lifeline.org.au) offers a 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention telephone service on 13 11 14. People battling depression and anxiety can also call Beyondblue (beyondblue.org.au) on 1300 224 636.
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