Asking the right questions after a Q400 is stolen

Even something as complex as global aviation still relies inherently on trust.

So much of the aviation system is built on trust.

Passengers place their trust in the pilots in the cockpit. An air traffic controller trusts pilots in the air will follow instructions. A pilot trusts in the mechanics on the ground to prepare an airplane for flight. A mechanic trusts that the airplane was built and designed correctly in the first place. It goes on and on. Every level of the system has checks, balances and repeated verification, but fundamentally anything as complex as global aviation still relies inherently on trust.

The events Friday over the skies of Puget Sound reawakened our 17-year old national trauma. A stolen airliner forces our minds back to the weaponization of aviation. 9/11 wasn’t committed with stolen city buses – it was four airliners. And it was as close to a reminder of that day as we’ve come since 2001.

What happened was a violation of the trust that’s placed in those who make aviation run at all levels. But at its very core, the theft and crash of N449QX in Seattle happened because someone who needed help, didn’t get it in time. Whether he sought it or not, or knew he needed it or not.

But Richard Russell revealed a weakness in the aviation system. An airline employee with authorized access to an airplane was able to tow and power up a parked regional turboprop and taxi it unnoticed at the ninth busiest airport in the U.S. Whether through a detailed simulation of the Bombardier Dash 8-Q400 available for home use or just a collegial pilot eager to share what they know, how Russell gained his expertise is a question for investigators to establish.

Related: Stealing an airplane ‘an unbelievably rare occurrence’

But at the end of the day, Russell was in a trusted position. Would it have been different if he was – as was first reported – a mechanic? What about a pilot? Regardless, Russell was permitted to be on that plane. Just as Andreas Lubitz in 2015, as was Herminio dos Santos Fernandes in 2013. There is, of course, an enormous difference in the outcome of each situation, but the common thread is all were trained and trusted to be where they were when lives were lost.

Each time the extremely improbable becomes reality, the industry is forced to think differently. Asking “can the system be safer or more reliable?” is the industry’s DNA. With frustrating frequency, of course, that has first required a tragedy. But time and time again aviation’s culture – even one of self-policing – asks what needs to change to improve.

“If one part of the system fails you have to ensure multiple layers of defenses are in place,” wrote Linsey Rubenstein, President and founder of BigPhish Security, a cyber security consultancy in Seattle. “It is not enough to have a ‘firewall’ that protects the perimeter of the network. It is not enough to conduct regular hacking and health checks of your internal systems and processes. It is not enough to restrict high risk individuals from accessing your network. It is not enough to share data and attacker techniques with business and government, and so forth.”

But Rubenstein, a former Director of Cyber Security at Boeing is also a graduate of Marjorie Stoneman-Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.. She was writing in March about gun control and school security, not aviation safety. Yet the principles of prevention – and action – are identical when working to rebuild trust after it’s been broken.

“You have to do ALL of these things and more because mistakes will always happen,” she wrote. “People and technology are never perfect and we should not pretend they are.”

There is no single solution, despite our search for a magic bullet.

This forced introspection may or may not result in any technological, regulatory or policy changes that are necessary to prevent the one-in-a-billion chance event from occurring again. But being unafraid to ask these questions and act if something can be done better is central to reestablishing the trust that allows the system to operate the way it does safely day in and day out.

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