Airplane thief could spur copycats

May 20, 2010

The actions of a young thief in the Pacific Northwest, who is suspected in at least four airplane thefts—and hundreds of other crimes, including burglary, theft, and credit-card fraud—are giving Colton Harris-Moore a cult following. The accompanying attention in regional and national news media is elevating his actions to folk-hero status and could inspire others to attempt similar thefts, AOPA cautions.

It’s believed that Harris-Moore, 19, stole his first airplane on Nov. 12, 2008, from Orcas Island Airport in Eastsound, Wash.; he flew the Cessna 182 about 300 miles east and fled from the scene of his crash landing on Yakama Indian Reservation land. The second airplane he’s believed to have stolen was a Cirrus SR22 taken from Friday Harbor, Wash., on Sept. 11, 2009, and flown 12 nm to Orcas Island. Harris-Moore is the suspect in the Sept. 29, 2009, theft of a Cessna 182 from Bonners Ferry, Idaho; the Skylane was flown back across the Cascades and crash landed in northwestern Washington. On Feb. 11, he is believed to have flown a Cirrus SR22 from Anacortes, Wash., back to Orcas Island, apparently just missing a temporary flight restriction in place for the Winter Olympics.

“His actions should not be glamorized,” said Brittney Miculka, AOPA manager of security and borders. “General aviation remains secure because we are a close-knit community that looks out for each other. Actions like those of Harris-Moore undo eight years of progress through AOPA's Airport Watch.”

Harris-Moore has been on the run from the authorities for more than two years. He’s been nicknamed the “barefoot bandit” because of bare footprints he’s accused of leaving at the scene of several crimes. He reportedly spent a lot of time using flight-simulation software, and police reports indicate that he used stolen credit cards to purchase additional information on how to fly.

The airplanes Harris-Moore is accused of stealing weren’t left sitting out on the ramp with the keys in the ignition. At least two were stolen from locked hangars, and the doors of one airplane were pried open with a screwdriver or crowbar. Prop locks, wheel locks, or other supplemental locking devices apparently were not used, however.

“Our biggest enemy is complacency, and the perception of general aviation cannot afford complacency,” Miculka said. “It is important to take the proper measures to secure your airplane—every time. Security is everyone's responsibility.”

Mike Collins

Mike Collins | Technical Editor, AOPA

Mike Collins has worked for AOPA’s media network since 1994. He holds a private pilot certificate with an instrument rating.