As he flew the stolen 76-seat passenger plane above the Seattle area for nearly an hour on Friday night, Richard B. Russell was asked by an air traffic controller whether he was comfortable “just flying the plane around.”
Russell, 28, a Horizon Air employee whose duties would have included handling baggage and de-icing planes but not flying them, responded, “I played video games before, so, you know, I know what I’m doing a little bit.”
Indeed, Gary Beck, chief executive of Horizon Air, an Alaska Air Group subsidiary, said that Russell — who died when the Q400 turboprop aircraft he was piloting crashed into an island some 30 miles from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — did not have a pilot’s license.
“Commercial aircrafts are complex machines,” Beck said at a news conference Saturday. “I don’t know how he achieved the experience he did.”
Certified flight instructors and aviation experts on Sunday were divided on how much video games or flight simulators could prepare someone to operate an airplane.
“Yes, I believe that a civilian who has a thorough experience of flight simulation could indeed start, taxi and take off an aircraft with no real world pilot experience,” Ryan Barclay, the founder and executive director of Fly Away Simulation, an online hub for “at home” flight simulation enthusiasts, said Sunday.
While professional simulators complete with full-motion mock cockpits offer immersive experiences, YouTube tutorials and online flight simulators from gaming platforms like Steam offer more easily available training.
Rick Todd, president of the National Association of Flight Instructors, said Sunday that it had never occurred to him that someone who had experience only with a simulator — which he described as highly realistic, down to the switches in a cockpit — would be able to do what Russell did.
Todd said he was also surprised to see that someone without a pilot’s license would be able to get the plane off the ground without it stalling, let alone perform the aerobatic maneuvers Russell executed on Friday.
Videos taken by onlookers during Russell’s flight showed the plane doing deep dives, broad loops and at least one upside-down roll. Some of Russell’s actions, such as knowing to be at a certain elevation to perform certain aerial moves, suggested he may have learned them from a flight simulator, Todd said.
“It’s highly improbable, but not impossible, that he never had a lick of flying except other than in a virtual world,” he said.
Because of the friendly work atmosphere at airports, it would not be unusual if Russell had learned how to start an engine by watching one of the mechanics, he said.
Flying a Q400, a complex turboprop plane, would require more training on top of the requirements for a private pilot’s license, said Richard McSpadden, executive director of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Air Safety Institute. A pilot would also need endorsements from flight instructors for certain skills to fly a Q400.
McSpadden said he found it highly unlikely that Russell had the skills simply from a simulation. He noted that the recording of Russell’s conversation with air traffic controllers suggested he was not familiar with aviation terminology but he knew enough to attempt aerial maneuvers.
Thomas Anthony, director of the University of Southern California Aviation Safety and Security Program, acknowledged that there were “portions of the approach and landing process” that could be taught using a simulator. Still, he was emphatic: “You cannot safely operate an aircraft based solely on a simulator.”
He said the broad availability of simulators — as with so many other technologies that have proliferated in recent years — is a two-way street. “It simply is another thing that needs to be addressed, and understood, and mitigated,” he said.
Anthony referred to the findings of the 9/11 Commission, which concluded that the authorities responsible for maintaining the security of U.S. aviation had broad “failures of imagination” in the years leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.
An equally grave threat was the refusal to challenge certain assumptions — for instance, that a person who does not have a criminal background or associations with terrorism was safe to work behind the scenes. “But, in fact, that’s not enough,” Anthony said. Sophisticated simulators and private emotional turmoil can prove to be a deadly mix, he said.
Barclay said landing was “an art form” that could not be learned from a PC-based simulator.
“There is one major thing that separates simulators from real life,” Barclay said. “If you crash in the simulator, then you can reset it and start again.”