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Volume 25, Number 33a
August 13, 2018
 
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Suicidal Ramp Worker Crashes Q400 (Updated, Corrected)
 
Russ Niles
 
 

A Horizon Air Q400 crashed on Ketron Island near Seattle-Tacoma Airport in Washington State after 29-year-old ramp worker Rich Russell was able to take it off from the busy international airport. The motive was suicide and it was not a terrorist act.  Russell used a tug to turn around the aircraft, which was waiting for maintenance, took the left seat, started it and taxied to a runway to take off. The aircraft was not scheduled to fly passengers on Friday and Russell was the only one on board.

Exactly how he took off without authorization from Sea Tac is unclear but a short time later the aircraft was  captured on cell phone video doing aggressive maneuvers, including a full loop that recovered about 100 feet above Puget Sound. There was never any indication that Russell was intending to harm anyone but himself. He was in contact with air traffic controllers and described himself as a "broken guy" with "a couple of screws loose." After doing the loop he said he planned to try a barrel roll and if that was successful he'd "put the nose down and call it a night." The aircaft crashed in a wooded area on the sparely populated island about 40 miles southwest of the airport. There were no buildings hit and no one was killed or injured on the ground.

Q400 How-To Videos Available
 
Russ Niles
 
 

Chief among the many comments and reactions to the suicide by Rich Russell in a Horizon Airlines Q400 on Friday was the wonder about how a ramp attendant could take off and do aerobatics in a regional airliner. Well, Russell may have provided the answer himself. He told air traffic controllers he played video games and that gave him some confidence in the left seat of a 60,000-pound airliner. He also operated tugs to move the aircraft around SeaTac so was familiar with at least some of the systems of the aircraft. As for the rest, he could have consulted YouTube.

Although it’s not clear what video games he played or how he learned from them, AVweb’s cursory search of the web found a variety of videos he could have consulted. The two that appear below are the most detailed and instructional we found and it's not known if Russell used them, but they appear high in Google searches. In these, a Flight Simulator X expert who is also a self-proclaimed fan of the Q400 provides clear direction on operating the aircraft. How do you start a Q400? Learn every switch to flick and every lever to push and pull in Video 1. How about getting it off the ground and maneuvering it in flight? Video 2 is more than 90 minutes long and takes the virtual pilot from Papua New Guinea to Australia but all the information is there for someone interested in learning it. Again, there’s no evidence that Russell used these or any other how-to videos from YouTube to ultimately end his life in a ball of fire and shattered aluminum but they're there and it's likely something that will be investigated.

A Suicide in Seattle
 
Paul Bertorelli
 

Now that it has sunk below the fold—or will have by the time you read this—the most surprising thing about Friday’s bizarre stolen Q400 incident is that it wasn’t streamed live on Facebook. Now that I’ve typed that, I realize someone will send a link saying, oh, but it was.

I’ve been scanning the domestic press for the inevitable overreaction, but thus far, it has not materialized. I haven’t seen the shrill call for tighter security or more Rorschach and lie detector tests for ramp workers. Give it time, I guess. One reason might be that the entire thing was so utterly stupefying, it’s difficult to think it through a full circle. Perhaps even the usual suspects who call for more rules, procedures and restrictions actually realize that this time.

Anyone in aviation won’t be perplexed about how the worker—now named as 29-year-old Richard Russell—got across the ramp and into the airplane. Ramp workers are security cleared, dressed for success and have largely unfettered access to aircraft owned by the companies they work for. A challenge from a co-worker would be unlikely. The ramp is not necessarily a see something, say something kind of place.

Lighting up the airplane and actually taxiing it for takeoff struck me as, well, impressive. I remarked to a skydiver friend of mine that I have thousands of hours, an ATP and a little turboprop time and I doubt if I could even start the engines. Then, just for the hell of it, I unearthed the Q400 checklist on the web and … yes, there are six items on the pre-start. All labeled. Probably anyone with flying experience could do it. We don’t know if Russell had any.

I saw a forum comment from a Q400 pilot who was likewise impressed with Russell’s aerobatics in a 60,000-pound airplane. The loop, caught on the cellphones that make it impossible to do anything in modern life without digital immortality, finished breathtakingly close to the surface of Puget Sound. I’m certain I couldn’t do that because I’d be too scared to try.

There will be an investigation, of course, which will describe the how and attempt to explain the why. But I can’t imagine there will be a satisfactory explanation, just as there was no explanation for Andreas Lubitz crashing an Airbus with 150 people aboard into the French Alps in 2015. By explanation, I don’t mean how Lubitz’s known medical issues slipped through the screening gaps, but why one human’s response to the demons of depression and mental illness is to take his own life along with 150 others.

In contrast, if you listen to the tape of Russell describing his torments, he seems … quite normal. Not agitated; just resigned. Tell me if you learned anything from listening, because I did not. It didn’t take the online world long to manufacture the usual memes, which are meant to be funny but are really just mean. Personally, I couldn’t summon so much as a smile. As a society, we’re not always good at seizing the broken, the fallen and the weakened among us by the elbows and lifting them out of the dark before they do something to themselves or others that defies explanation. Often, we don't even know their names.

There are 7.4 billion people on the planet, any number of whom suffer from mental illnesses serious enough to contemplate suicide. In this case, one of them happened to intersect with the aviation world. And that’s likely all the explanation there will ever be.--Paul Bertorelli

 

Because the nearest airport to me is largely a regional facility, feeding nearby hubs in Calgary, Vancouver and Seattle, I spend a lot of time on Q400s, including those owned by Horizon Airlines. Lacking anything else to do while the plane is prepared for taxi, I have, over the years, developed a mental checklist on the start procedure. It’s not that I think I’ll ever fly anything much bigger than the Cessna 140 that occasionally separates me from terra firma. But if the procedure is interrupted, I can usually predict whether we’re waiting for a slot or headed back to the gate.

So, with the incident in Seattle and all the hand wringing that has gone with it concerning security and safety, it got me thinking that it couldn’t be that hard to start up a Q400 and get it into the air. 
I like to think I would have a leg up in that regard over Richard Russell, the ramp worker who stole an Horizon Q400 and tragically crashed it intentionally on an isolated island on Friday. After all, I sort of know how to fly an airplane.
 
But after a 30-minute cruise on YouTube,  I’m not so sure being a pilot would give me much advantage over someone like Russell. He saw and participated in the turnarounds of hundreds of Q400 flights in his three years working the ramp at SeaTac and probably had a pretty good understanding of what all that switch flicking in the cockpit did in practical terms.
 
One of the things Russell said in his chillingly calm conversations with ATC while he tooled around Puget Sound in the 76-seat aircraft for 90 minutes on Friday is that he had played video games and basically understood what he was doing. So, I typed “Q400 Startup Procedure” into Google and the fourth item was a remarkably detailed video by the same name from a U.K. gamer who calls himself Durka. Using FSX, Durka, who’s a big fan of the virtual Q400, goes through every step of the start up in detail. Every switch is clearly located and its position described, every procedure is described in elegantly simple language. It’s more complicated than “flicking a single switch” as some media are portraying it but anyone with an interest in it should be able to do it. The guy should get out of his basement. He has a future in real-world sim training.
 
I don’t know if this was the video game Russell referred to in his chat with the calm and professional Seattle controller but Russell seemed like a smart guy and I’m sure it, or one like it, in addition to his own experience, would have been plenty for him to get the engines started. But starting it is one thing. Could he actually get it off the ground by watching a how-to flight simulator video? I think that could very well be what happened. 
 
A lot of the comments about this story have mentioned Russell’s smooth flying through some pretty aggressive and complex maneuvers. A few weeks ago, at Farnborough Air Show, a highly experienced Lockheed Martin pilot stunned spectators by looping a civilian model Hercules transport. Russell made it look easy to do the same in a Q400. His loop and recovery in the airliner were smooth and stable, his near-knife-edge turns looked crisp and professional. It’s been confirmed he had no formal fight training. Landing it would have been a different story but Russell told the controllers that he wasn’t planning to land, anyway.
 
When something like this happens, the natural reaction is to “do something” to prevent it. Maybe the cockpits of empty airliners could be a little more secure but as far as locking them up or adding security devices goes,  it strains credibility as to whether that’s worthwhile. Although I guess a copycat repeat of this bizarre incident is possible, it just doesn’t seem likely. There are certainly easier ways to end it all.
And that brings to mind something that might actually help prevent this and other media spectacle suicides.
Rather than concentrate solely on the ramp and aircraft security, the video games and the flicking of switches, I hope the investigations dwell somewhat on what was going on with Russell and what might have prompted him to choose this type of exit.
 
As a species, we are remarkably adaptable and inventive and it’s usually what gives our lives structure and purpose. Russell had plenty to live for. He had a loving family, lots of interests and pastimes and a long and productive life ahead of him. But the long list of celebrity suicides in recent years suggest that “having it all” is not enough for some people to keep going. I would suggest that no regulatory or enforcement action will prevent another occurrence of this spectacular nature but some work on the mental health issues that are manifesting in this way might actually do some good.--Russ Niles

 

In-depth Tour: Douglas A-26
 
Baxter Van West and Ashley Anglisano
 
 

Developed during World War II as a medium bomber, the Douglas-built A-26 entered service late in the war. But it also saw service in Vietnam, where it was prized for interdiction missions on the Ho Chi Minh trail. The only airworthy A-26 was on display at AirVenture 2018 and J.R. Hoffman gave AVweb's Baxter Van West and Ashley Anglisano a walkaround/cockpit tour. This A-26 is a On Mark Engineering-modified aircraft that was used in Vietnam, and is equipped with modern avionics, including ADS-B.

 

 
Trump Choice Complicating FAA Administrator Nomination
 
Russ Niles
 
 

President Donald Trump's continued promotion of his personal pilot John Dunkin as the next FAA administrator is apparently the underlying cause of the lengthy delay in nominating a new administrator. And according to Politico and The Daily Beast it’s frustrating congressional members on both sides on the aisle because a mutually acceptable candidate is already on the job. The publications say it’s generally felt that Acting Administrator Dan Elwell would face little opposition in the nomination process, especially since he’s been doing the job since Michael Huerta left in January. But Dunkin’s presence is apparently forcing a stalemate.

Politico’s analysis says the nomination of Dunkin would likely result in a protracted and polarized nomination battle in the Senate, something the Republicans don’t want heading into the midterm election. But Trump, who first proposed Dunkin for the job in the spring, is reportedly still lobbying for the nomination. The Daily Beast is suggesting the strategy now is to try to wait out Trump and leave things as they are until he loses interest. In the meantime, it would appear the first multiyear reauthorization of the agency in years is poised to pass and the lack of a confirmed administrator does not seem to be hindering any of the agency’s work.

Vintage Airliner Crash Injures Five
 
Russ Niles
 
 

For the second time in less than a month, a vintage airliner carrying passengers has crashed but this time there were no fatalities. The 1944 de Havilland Dragon Rapide biplane took off from Abbotsford International Airport in British Columbia about 5:30 p.m. on Saturday just after the close of the annual airshow for the day. Two weeks ago a Junkers Ju-52 crashed in the Swiss Alps killing all 20 on board.  The Dragon Rapide, carrying a pilot and four passengers, was recently acquired by the Historic Flight Foundation at nearby Paine Field in Washington State. It ran into trouble on takeoff and crashed in the airport infield. Three passengers suffered relatively minor injuries, one injury was described as serious and the pilot was taken to hospital in critical condition but has since been upgraded to serious. HFF founder John Sessions was checked out in the aircraft but none of those on board have been identified by Canadian authorities and it’s not confirmed he was the pilot.

The museum was offering rides to the public at the airshow but it’s not clear if the passengers were paying customers or museum staff and volunteers. The aircraft is one of about 10 in airworthy condition. Images from Abbotsford showed significant damage, particularly to the right set of wings and cockpit, but it’s not clear if it can be repaired. The aircraft was developed in the early 1930s in England and was used as an airliner and as a military transport. At total of 781 were built. The aircraft in question was one of the last ones built in 1944 and first delivered to the Royal Air Force. It was converted to an airliner after the war and used in revenue service and as a survey aircraft in the U.K. until 1971 when it was bought by the EAA Museum, which displayed it until 1997. HFF founder John Sessions bought the plane in 2017 from the estate of a California collector. Video of its debut flight after restoration last July 24, with Sessions at the controls, is below.

Zephyr Breaks Endurance Record
 
Kate O'Connor
 
 

Airbus Defense and Space has announced the successful landing of its first production Zephyr S High Altitude Pseudo-Satellite (HAPS) after a record-breaking 25 days, 23 hours and 57 minutes aloft. It was launched on July 11. The previous endurance record was a held by the Zephyr 7 prototype, which remained airborne for more than 14 days in 2010.

“This very successful maiden flight represents a new significant milestone in the Zephyr program, adding a new stratospheric flight endurance record which we hope will be formalized very shortly,” said Jana Rosenmann, Head of Unmanned Aerial Systems at Airbus. “We will in the coming days check all engineering data and outputs and start the preparation of additional flights planned for the second half of this year from our new operating site at the Wyndham airfield in Western Australia.”

The unmanned Zephyr S weighs 75 kilograms (approximately 165 pounds) and can support up to five times its own weight. It is entirely solar-powered and cruises in the stratosphere at an average altitude of 70,000 feet. Airbus calls it “not quite an aircraft and not quite a satellite, but incorporating aspects of both.” According to the company, Zephyr aircraft are designed to provide “persistent local satellite-like services,” including tasks such as maritime surveillance, border patrol, communications, monitoring the spread of wildfires or oil spills, and navigation.

Rim Shot From 50 Feet
 
Russ Niles
 
 

Trick shots are the hallmark of the Harlem Globetrotters but making a basket from the back seat of a Super Cub was a highlight even for the storied team. Notwithstanding that the first trick was folding the basketball player into the seat, the video prepared by the team shows him sinking the basket from about 50 feet above the runway at Woodbine Airport in New Jersey on Aug. 8. It does not say how many times they had to try before they got the video they wanted. The Globetrotters tweeted that it was the first time in 92 years that they’d pulled off that kind of stunt.

Short Final: Top Or Bottom
 

I was flying near Salinas, California, when the Goodyear blimp was passing over the airport. Tower advised an inbound aircraft of the blimp in the area.

Tower: “Beech 1234 be advised there’s a blimp at your two o’clock, three thousand feet."

Beech 1234: “Is that from the top or from the bottom?

Doug Anderson
Salinas, CA
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Top Letters And Comments, August 10, 2018
 
 

Propping? What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

I certainly enjoyed Paul's description of the propping episode he experienced. He writes well and I'd like to see more. I'm not sure he has a clear understanding of what and why the impulse coupler does what it does, however. It is surprising that he hasn't had many such experiences in his long career. In my first job on an airport I propped many different kinds of airplanes with many different kinds of engines including a few which should never be propped. I won’t lecture here but just say when propping an airplane the impulse coupler is your friend. Kickbacks are caused more by lack of follow thru. My suggestion is never prop an engine from behind.

Gary W. Green

I'll do it, when necessary, but not my favorite thing. However, in spite of all the countless injuries, minor & major, you have to admit hand propping certainly has generated some really entertaining stories. Non-aviation passengers departing sans pilot on their first (short, and probably last) small airplane rides, airplanes flying out of sight with no one aboard, and property damage stories galore all all well represented. And although not strictly "hand" propping, I was always fascinated by the tales, and pictures, of starting big engines with a wound rope...sometimes pulled by a vehicle.

John Wilson

I actually like hand propping--will happily do it on a small Continental with someone I trust at the controls...I get this sense of accomplishment when the thing starts that makes it fun. (It also helps that the small continental on my airplane has impulse couplings on both mags--occasionally I hand prop even though I have a starter...)

Colin Reed

Icon Fractional Program

...are you kidding me... a snow cone would have better chances of survival in a volcano than Icon has of surviving through implementation of a fractional ownership program. There's something wrong over there at Icon. Who dreams up these things?

Tom Cooke

Maduro Survives Drone Assassination Attempt

Has anyone considered that this was a pretend attack? No injuries, perps immediately arrested and confessing?

Ray Damijonaitis

I agree this looks suspicious. Also sighing because this has been the concern for a while: off the shelf gear is more than suitable for this kind of thing. A U.S. gun Youtuber demonstrated a drone with a machine pistol a few years ago. With no special programming the drone neatly compensated for the recoil.

Cosmo Adsett

There is a very high probability that the 'explosion' was something else. There are reports of a gas tank exploding nearby. In the resulting confusion, a state television drone capturing images for PR purposes was then shot down. With no further evidence emerging from any reliable sources, the events as stated by the regime remain doubtful.

Mauro Hernandez

Five Dead in California 414 Crash

"Although a car in the lot was damaged, authorities said Sunday evening there appeared to be no injuries on the ground." I don't believe the airplane occupants were injured, and subsequently died, until they were "On the ground." Last night, same crash report, NBC (Ch 5) reported that the aircraft fell from "Up above." What's become of common sense reporting? Are these the same news people that constantly push the term "Assault Weapon," without being able to define it? (If I get angry at the waiter and throw a wadded-up napkin at him, I am guilty of assault, and the napkin is now an assault weapon?) Attention to details, boys and girls!

David Jackson

Fleet Modernization

Much has been said about the FAA loosening the requirements for installation of non-essential equipment in older aircraft, but much more could, and in my opinion, should be done. Installation of non-essential equipment, when it has been demonstrated causes no conflicts, should be virtually deregulated. The use of "experimental gauges etc." in situations where it is not replacing required equipment should be allowed. An example would be a GEM. In most older Cessna, the only temperature monitoring instrument is an oil temperature gauge. An owner wanting to know CHT, and/or EGT must install an STC'd GEM in order to provide him with information the manufacturer deemed unnecessary. If this instrument failed, what would be the loss? Effectively the aircraft is returned to its stock configuration. In a more extreme example, my PT 26 uses an air maze filter which is no longer available. A Brackett replacement is available but it is for experimental only.

Older, orphan airplane owners are frequently placed in a position where clear improvements in operation and safety are available, such as better, more reliable brakes, but installing them relies on the capricious whims of your local FSDO, some of whom start out any request for a field approval with the question, "Who is your DER?" The owner is then faced with the choices of remaining with unreliable or unavailable parts, spending considerable sums in a possibly fruitless quest for official blessing, or just ignoring the rules and hoping nobody who is knowledgeable notices the changes. None of these are the right choice. A much more common sense approach to these problems and questions needs to be considered.

Tom Wilson

AirVenture

All the coverage of Airventure I've seen has been boosterish, "record breaking," "best ever," "great future," etc. and your coverage seems to be no exception. I've been to many Airventures and this one was far from the best. I suspect some of this disconnect may have something to do with a different experience for credentialed reporters vs. the rest of us?

The biggest overlooked story of this Airventure was the frustrating challenge of getting fuel on the field. Basler was simply not able to provide fuel and many people had to either delay until they could get fuel or leave without and stop short to get more, or beg and cajole fuel truck drivers on the field to fill them. I don't know for sure but I had a volunteer on Facebook say that Basler was kept off the field at first because of wet conditions, and once they were on a fueler driver told me that their tank farm was "down" and they were having to use a backup location that required them to drive farther and refuel the tankers slower, putting them way behind. Whatever the cause, fueling for aircraft campers at Airventure was a big problem this year and someone should get Basler on record re: what happened and what they will do to prevent it from happening next year.

Also the weather made getting to OSH a dangerous challenge. Because of the rain on the weekend before, once the weather opened up all the pent up traffic converged on RIPON at once and it was a mess, worse than I've ever seen. We were lucky to get in after going around only once but I ran into people who said they were sent around dozens of times and/or held for 2-3 hours or more. When I arrived Sunday afternoon the pent up frustration was obvious, with the controllers yelling at everyone that it was dangerous and they were about to shut it down if people didn't start following instructions... people were being told to turn left and were ignoring the instruction and continuing anyway. It didn't help that they were using RWY 9 instead of 27 which seems to reduce capacity significantly.

I also witnessed a crash on the ultralight runway that was only reported by a Green Bay website, and I only found it because I knew exactly what to look for, who knows how many others were not well reported?

Don't get me wrong, I love Airventure and go almost every year, but coverage of it can't all be boosterish "everything is awesome" stuff. The warts need to be covered too if for no other reason that people who experienced problems know they are known and being addressed, and to put in improvements for the next time.

Mike Fox

"AirVenture In The Tail Lights" Nope. It should have been "AirVenture In The Rear View." "In The Tail Lights" doesn't even make sense to me. Come on, guys. You can do better than this. It seems to be a trend in the news to butcher clichés and colloquial phrases. I'm not sure if the writers are attempting to freshen them up, misheard the original line, or in too much of a hurry to make deadline. In any case, as a former journalist, things like this annoy me.

Beaux Graham

Brainteasers Quiz #246: Let There Be No Confusion
 

Before beginning a flight, FAR 91.103 says that a pilot must become familiar with all available information concerning that flight, plus anticipate the weird unavailables that could pop up, making it possible to ace this quiz.

Click here to take the quiz.

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