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How could the Horizon event have happened?

Last year when an Alaska Airlines pilot attempted to shut down the engines on a Horizon Air Embraer jet, my phone started lighting up with people asking me how this might be possible or why someone might do this.

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I can’t speak to the why. The “how” isn’t that complicated.

As a pilot for a Part 121 carrier, he was qualified to ride in the cockpit. Every modern airliner has at least one extra seat, called a jump seat, in the cockpit. It’s technically for the FAA or a company evaluator to sit in to observe the crew to make sure that they are flying according to standard operating procedures (SOP). However, this is exceedingly rare, and the FAA and airlines have long allowed off-duty pilots to use the jump seat to travel. Most of the time, it’s used to get back and forth to work, although personal travel is also an option.

Certain requirements have to be met in order to be approved for the jump seat, and in the case in question, there is no reason to believe that procedures were not followed.

The FAA requires that certain things occur after a fire or an overheat is detected. When the fire handle(s) are pulled, one of the things that happens is that the fuel system is isolated or shut down in order to prevent fuel from continually feeding a potential fire (or starting one during an overheat scenario). While each airplane may have some unique differences designed in by the manufacturer, this is a given.

The perpetrator wasn’t able to completely shut the engines down. If he had, could the crew have restarted at least one engine by resetting the system? I don’t know, and I’m glad we didn’t have to find out. Usually when an engine is shut down with a fire handle, it stays shut down until the mechanics have a chance to examine the engine, troubleshoot, and then begin to restore it to use (if they can).

It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of thinking the FAA might shut down access to the jump seat, but that would open a can of worms. In the end, we have to assume that this event was an outlier. By all accounts, everyone followed protocol right up until it happened, and the uncomfortable truth is that if someone with inside information on anything has bad intentions, they can find a way to act on them while exploiting even the smallest gaps in the system.

Chip Wright
Chip Wright is an airline pilot and frequent contributor to AOPA publications.

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