Congratulations, you did that,” he said. “Now let’s try to land that airplane safely and not hurt anybody on the ground.”
“All right!” Russell responded. His voice became wild as he broke in with a darker transmission: “Aw. Dammit. I don’t want to! I was kind of hoping that was going to be it. You know?”
The TSA flatly refuses to discuss the Horizon Air incident and would not release its own civil investigation into the matter. TSA would not arrange any interviews with Rolling Stone , even to discuss the insider threat generally. Administrator Pekoske did not respond to a direct request to discuss the incident, or his department’s stonewalling of it.
The agency determined Russell had no formal flight training, although he’d searched for instructional videos online and was “familiar with the checklist of actions for starting an airplane
Although Russell’s exploit resembled a hijacking, because of a lack of passengers, it was treated as a theft. The FBI took the lead on the investigation. Federal law enforcement would not release the flight data recorder or the cockpit recordings, although the FBI characterized public recordings, grabbed by amateur aviation enthusiasts, as capturing all “significant” communications.
” Les Abend was a pilot for 34 years with American Airlines. He says Russell was uncannily skilled, suggesting he had likely logged a lot of hours on PC flight-simulator software. “If somebody that had no real concept of how to fly that airplane actually got it started and took off, they would have been in the drink,” Abend says. “But this guy knew what he was doing.” In a press conference on August 11th, airline executives were dumbfounded – and in their shock sounded oddly chuffed about Russell’s aerobatics. “There were some maneuvers that were done that were incredible maneuvers with the aircraft,” said Horizon CEO Gary Beck.
At every level – corporate, airport, and governmental – authorities in this case have emphasized that there were no violations of security procedure, no one to blame, and no clear lapses to reform. SeaTac’s Reiter asserted that “what happened on August 10th was not a breakdown of any existing airport protocols.” TSA, summarizing its undisclosed investigation, “found Horizon Air and SeaTac International Airport to be in compliance with all security requirements.” In the agency’s only on-the-record comment to Rolling Stone , TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers underscored: “There were no security violations related to this incident.”
I dunno, man, I dunno!
But Abend describes the ease with which Russell commandeered a plane as “unfathomable.” Those who knew Russell are still perplexed that there were no effective safeguards in place to prevent his flight: “How is it this was even possible?” asks Schaefers, from Coos Bay, “for an unauthorized person who is not a pilot to get in a plane and fly it off the tarmac?”
The day after Russell’s exploits, an ashen-faced Brad Tilden, then CEO of Alaska Airlines, tried to answer similar questions from reporters: “This is aviation in America,” he said. “The doors to the airplanes are not keyed like a car. There’s not an ignition key like there would be in a car.” The Q400 was parked inside the airport’s fenced perimeter and presumed safe. “We secure the airfield and then we have the mindset that we have employees that are credentialed,” he said. “So the system that works is we secure the employees that are there.”
Except that the system hadn’t worked. It had just failed spectacularly. Ostrower calls the incident “incredibly, incredibly serious,” and an affront to an airport system oriented to keeping bad actors out, not preventing good actors from breaking bad. “The entire system operates based on trust; this was an incredible violation of that trust,” he says of Russell, who’d previously passed at least two FBI background checks. “I mean, he broke the Maginot Line.”