How Easy Is It To Steal a Plane? We Asked a Pilot

Maybe it's because one-fifth of the Supercompressor staff is absolutely terrified of flying, maybe it's just the incurable itch of curiosity, but we've had a lot of questions about flying recently. Our go-to pilot (who's thankfully also a therapist) is Captain Tom Bunn, who knows everything to know about planes, including our latest query: how easy is it to steal a plane? 

According to the captain, not particularly hard if you know where to look. 

Captain, can we talk about stealing an airplane? 

Sure, we can play with that one. Off the top of my head, I'd say a person needs to know a lot about the plane. Maybe they could learn how to operate the systems, and get the engines started, etc. by playing a flight simulator game. But, if it's an airliner, how are they going to back it off the gate? That is normally done with a tug. To do it with engines in reverse would make a lot of noise; that might make detection a problem.

Are those the only deterrents? Learning how to fly and backing it off the gate? 

What about taxi clearance from ground control? They don't give clearance to taxi until you have a filed—and approved—flight plan. Hard to see how a plane thief would carry that off. Taxi without clearance is a big red flag.

Then what?

I would expect ground control to send out the airport cops to block the plane, and if the plane did not stop, the cops could shoot out the tires. Deflated tires would make take off dangerous if not impossible.

Okay, so how about a smaller plane?

Stealing a light plane? Not so hard at an airport with no tower or with a tower that shuts down late at night. No pushback problem because the light planes are not nosed into the terminal. I recall an incident in which an Air Force mechanic decided to try flying an F-86 [Sabre]. He got it into the air but had trouble landing and getting the plane stopped, and ended up being stopped by a device that stops fighters that run off the end of the runway.

Wait, does a plane even have keys?

No keys. If the cockpit door has been closed, access to the cockpit is only available by key code.

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