On Wednesday, police arrested a 22-year-old man for stealing a $7 million, 10-passenger jet plane from a runway in Florida and flying it 350 miles to Georgia; apparently, he nicked the plane for kicks. How do you steal an airplane?
Climb into the cockpit and start it up. Some airplanes are easier to steal than others. It's pretty much impossible to make off with a commercial airliner, for example. In addition to circumventing the tight security and ever-present ground crews at major airports, the thief would have to get up to an airplane door that's several stories above the ground. But smaller planes, like single-engine Cessnas and corporate jets, are easy targets. About a dozen of these planes are stolen from runways and hangars every year.
Joy riders account for a small proportion of all plane thefts; experts say the others may be attributed to criminal organizations that smuggle drugs across the Mexican border. More common than plane thieves are plane burglars, who don't even bother to start the plane once they break into the cockpit. They just unscrew some fancy avionics equipment and run away. (There are 60 or 70 such incidents each year.)
Getting into a small plane isn't too difficult. Even airports with locked hangars often have a fair number of planes out in the open. After 9/11, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association put together a community policing program and crime-reporting hotline. Pilots are told to call in any suspicious activity around parked planes. Among the things to look out for: "Anyone who misuses aviation lingo—or seems too eager to use all the lingo." (Click here for a video re-enactment of a thwarted plane theft, about four and a half minutes into the clip.)
If a robber makes it up to the side of a plane, he may find its door unlocked. Given that there are more than 600,000 general aviation pilots in the United States and only a dozen thefts per year, owners tend not to be too concerned about security. Even a paranoid pilot might want to leave his door unlocked: An avionics burglar who breaks into a cockpit with a crowbar could inflict structural damage that ends up costing more than the stolen equipment.
Once the thief gets into the cockpit, he'll have to start the plane. Like cars, most propeller planes have key ignitions. (Older models may have a start button instead.) Hot-wiring a plane, however, is easier than hot-wiring a car. Since planes are built to be as light as possible, their dashboards are relatively easy to disassemble, and the wires beneath are more easily exposed. Some larger planes, like the corporate jet that was stolen in Florida, have locks on the exterior cabin door but no key ignition in the cockpit. To start one of these planes, you just need to know the right sequences of switches to flip and buttons to press.
Small plane owners can secure their property by installing "prop locks," which immobilize propellers in the same way that a boot can immobilize a car. Throttle locks are more like the security clubs drivers attach to their steering wheels; they affix to control equipment inside the cockpit. In some types of corporate jets, owners can remove certain electrical components like the battery cables when the plane is not in use. Others have keypad security systems in the cockpit that shut down the engine when the wrong code is entered.
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Explainer thanks Robert J. Collins of the Aviation Crime Prevention Institute, Chris Dancy of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and Dan Hubbard of the National Business Aviation Association.