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Experts seek security standard review after U.S. plane thefts

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Aircraft retrieval vehicles arrive at the Steilacoom Ferry dock which takes investigators to Ketron Island, the crash site of the Horizon Air Bombardier Q400 turboprop that was stolen from Sea-Tac International Airport, in Steilacoom, Washington on August 11, 2018.<br />A 29-year-old “suicidal” airport worker who commandeered an empty plane from Seattle’s main airport and took it on an hour-long flight chased by F-15 fighter jets before crashing into a small island did not commit any security violations, officials said Saturday. Horizon Air employee Richard Russell told an air traffic controller he was “just a broken man” minutes before dying late Friday in the Bombardier Q400 twin-engine turboprop plane, appearing to apologize for his actions. Law enforcement officials identified him to US media.<br />/ AFP PHOTO / Jason Redmond

Two cases of stolen plane and fatal crashes in the United States have jolted the air transport community to demand a review of safety and security measures to complement access in the sector.

Experts said the two rare incidents exposed the aviation security’s blind spots, as they called for routine mental health evaluation for technicians that have unfettered access to aircraft and airsides.

An Alaska Air employee allegedly stole the airlines’ turboprop plane last Saturday and crashed it on an island in Puget Sound, killing himself about an hour after he took off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

According to the airline, the 29-year-old man — identified as Richard Russell, had authorised access to the company’s planes to perform his job.

The 76-seat Bombardier Q400 turboprop plane of regional unit Horizon Air was not scheduled to fly that evening when it was stolen.

About two days later, an Utah man also stole a plane and crashed it into his own home where his wife was staying, police said.

The man, 47-year-old Duane Youd, did not survive the crash.

Flames engulfed the house in the city of Payson after the crash and ensuing fire at 2:30 a.m.

Youd’s wife, as well as a boy, was inside the house at the time of the crash.

They lucky escaped and the plane did not hit other buildings or any power lines, police said.

The unusual incidents, experts said, showed the limits of securing facilities, as well as in monitoring employees and addressing potential mental health issues.

An aviation security consultant and professor at the Metropolitan State University in Denver, Jeff Price, said the physical security layers in the airport were not designed to protect against such incidences.

Price said some measures to avoid this kind of incident are in the hiring process and psychological evaluations, though these also are not always foolproof.

Aviation Security Consultant, Group Captain John Ojikutu (rtd), added that the development was quite disturbing, but a lesson for the wider aviation community.

Ojikutu said while every airline had security programmes approved by the responsible aviation authority, “the question to ask and to be answered is: does the security programmes of the airline allowed one person alone to have access to the airlines aircraft whether crew member or technician?”

“We and I mean our Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) and the airlines should learn appropriate lesson from what has happened in Seattle, especially now that we are in the midst of homegrown terrorism.

“We, NCAA and airline operators must conduct regular background checks on all staff that have access to aircraft fleet at least twice yearly and extend medical psychological tests to the ground staff especially the technicians,” Ojikutu said.

Airline executives said the depressed employee, Russell, had passed background checks, and that he did not have a pilot license.

He used a tow to turn the plane around 180 degrees before he taxied to a runway, the company said.

After taking off, made dramatic loops in the air before it crashed, video shot by onlookers showed.

“We don’t know how he learned to do that,” said Horizon’s CEO, Gary Beck, about how the employee came to operate the aircraft, noting the ignition on a plane isn’t like that of a car.


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