How Flight Simulators Might Have Helped the Seattle Airplane Thief
Richard Russell’s tragic and bizarre first, and final, flight in a Horizon Air Q400 has left aviation experts wondering. How did he obtain the skills to not only start the 76-seat twin-turboprop, but to get it airborne and fly for over an hour, performing jaw-dropping stunts?
Russell was a ground-service employee at SeaTac airport, who had training in the procedures of towing an aircraft. That may have given him a familiarity with the Q400’s flight deck, and because aircraft under tow are required to contact ramp or ground controllers, Russell likely understood basic radio procedures.
But how did he manage to start and fly a complex, modern airliner?
As has been reported in TPG, there are online videos for numerous aircraft that show the step-by-step process of starting a plane’s engines and preparing it for flight. And, talking to air traffic controllers during his flight, Russell said “I've played video games before, and I know what I'm doing a little bit.”
Investigators have not yet disclosed if they have determined how Russell gained his piloting skills.
“Every time something like this happens, flight simulators come into focus,” says Jon Ostrower, editor-in-chief of The Air Current, which provides exclusive news and insight on the business and technology of flying.
Aviation enthusiasts have been “flying” on their home computers for decades. Microsoft released the first version of its iconic Flight Simulator in the early 1980s, long before Windows was developed. Other simulation software followed, such as X-Plane, and Lockheed Martin’s Prepar3d, which was derived from the Microsoft product.
“The flight simulator community has gotten more and more advanced over the years. As computers have become more powerful, products have been developed with higher and higher fidelity that are just short of a certified FAA simulator,” says Ostrower.
Once 3-D graphics showed up in home computers, more accurate depictions of planes became possible, along with detailed airline liveries, terrain and landscapes. With the advent of the internet, enthusiasts could access real-time weather and even fly interactively with other simulator pilots and air traffic controllers.
Enthusiasts in the community have developed “add-ons” for the software that replicate almost any kind of plane or helicopter, from a single-engine Cessna 172 to a Boeing 747.
Or a Bombardier Q400.
Majestic Software is one of a handful of companies that have created very advanced add-ons for simulators, including the Q400. On the company’s website, the Q400 add-on is available in a home-flier’s basic “Pilot” edition. A “Pro” edition for advanced users even includes a heads-up display and working circuit breakers.
In-depth tutorials for the Majestic add-on are available through another company, Airline2Sim, covering everything from a tour of the flight deck to simulated flights between real-world airports.
In fact, home-based flight simulators can be an integral part of a pilot’s training that begins with a detailed photo poster of a plane’s instruments, and ends with flights in a multi-million dollar, full-motion aircraft simulator.
“The flight simulator community has developed these incredibly complex tools. I know pilots who ‘play’ with this stuff for fun in their time off, because they love it so much,” says Ostrower.
As a private pilot, I’ve made home-simulator “flights” to airports before hopping into a plane and heading out. The time on the simulator was an ideal way to familiarize myself with a new destination. I also “fly” a glider simulator, using the high-fidelity display and controls to practice procedures that are unique to soaring.
With a worldwide shortage of pilots, flight sims can ignite the passion for flight in people who are thinking about a career in aviation.
But in spite of the technology’s undisputed value, the tragic events at SeaTac have put the flight simulator community under the microscope.
“It happened after 9/11, there were reports of the hijackers using Flight Sim to familiarize themselves with the New Your City skyline. It happened again in Malaysia Airlines MH370, with the pilot’s home simulation,” says Ostrower. Captain Zaharie Shah, who commanded the Malaysian Boeing 777 that disappeared in 2014, was an avid flight simulator user, and may have flown on his home sim a route similar to the one the doomed flight likely took.
But the simulators, Ostrower adds, are not the real problem.
“Here we are again, having this discussion around whether there’s too much information out there," he says. "The information is not the dangerous thing, these are not state secrets. This is a commercial industry made up of passionate people who want to share what they know.”