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FLASH ALERT: INCREASED RISK OF FUTURE AIRCRAFT ATTACKS

Yannik Hunold, Isaiah Johnson, Martina Sclaverano, W/T Team,

Argyrios Chatziilias, Editor; Hannah Norton, Senior Editor

September 3, 2022



The model of aircraft stolen by Patterson[1]



The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is issuing a FLASH ALERT for private airfields in the US after Corey Patterson stole an airplane from Tupelo Airport in Mississippi, early Saturday, September 3, and threatened to crash into a Walmart in Tupelo.[2] Police were able to de-escalate the situation verbally, and Patterson landed safely in a nearby soybean field. Tupelo Airport will almost certainly investigate how Patterson stole the plane and why the towers were not being actively watched. Tupelo Airport will almost certainly increase its security protocols regarding access to aircraft and further vet personnel with access to the airstrip. Further security measures, such as increased mental health screenings, will likely depend on the results of the investigation and Patterson's motivation, as the investigation is ongoing. Small airports are therefore at risk of intrusion and theft of aircraft by individuals with mental illness or for terrorist purposes, likely resulting in plane crashes, casualties, and property damage.


CTG is on HIGH alert due to the HIGH likelihood of increased threats posed by small, fixed-wing, private aircraft. While threats and attacks using private aircraft are not new, the ease with which the pilot was able to steal the plane and the lack of ability for law enforcement to counter the threat VERY LIKELY represents a security vulnerability. A more determined perpetrator would have ALMOST CERTAINLY caused a significant loss of life and material damage in the future if they were to copy Patterson’s actions.


On September 3, Corey Patterson of Shannon, Mississippi, threatened to crash a Beechcraft King Air C90 airplane into a Tupelo, Mississippi Walmart. Patterson stole the aircraft and took off after 0500 local time. Local law enforcement reported that the tower at the Tupelo Airport was not manned at the time of Patterson’s takeoff. Tupelo police were also able to evacuate the surrounding areas, block traffic into the surrounding streets, de-escalate the situation, and convince Patterson to land the plane safely away from the Walmart. Patterson worked in runway operations at the Tupelo Airport for ten years and had some flight experience. The police were able to detain Patterson without any resistance, and he was charged with grand larceny and making terroristic threats. Additional charges are pending per a possible federal investigation.[3]


The Tupelo Airport will almost certainly increase security measures, like increased restrictions on access to aircraft, disabling the aircraft until a registered pilot is to take off, and introducing more shifts to staff the airstrip. Tupelo police will likely increase the number of patrols scheduled near small airports and investigate Patterson’s methods and motivations. The Tupelo Airport will also very likely conduct an internal investigation into how Patterson was able to access the aircraft. There is a roughly even chance Tupelo Airport will dismiss personnel it perceives to be responsible for the lapse in security.


Copycat perpetrators are very likely to be current or former employees of airports or airstrips due to the technical skill and familiarity required to operate aircraft. The pilot will unlikely survive crashing into a building, so the perpetrator attempting to crash a plane will almost certainly be under extreme pressure and having a particular goal. Suicidal intentions are a very likely motive too. While compromised mental health is almost certainly a motivating factor, other extreme stress factors like indebtedness, divorce, family losses, and illnesses could all be potential sources of stress that could push a mentally unhealthy person to the threshold of violence.


CTG assesses that the current threat climate is MODERATE as improved airport security and aircraft storage measures will very likely be a slow process. In the short term, mentally unstable individuals could likely try to emulate past plane theft attempts before airports can implement new protocols. Unauthorized civilians could bypass barriers like fences and unsurveilled boundaries of private hangars to access aircraft. The risk is exceptionally high for smaller or less frequented airports, as they likely have reduced staff and cannot monitor all premises effectively. If an unauthorized and unskilled pilot gains access to a plane, there is a very high risk of a plane crash in the immediate vicinity, with the risk being the highest if this individual has suicidal thoughts and aims at crashing the plane on purpose and into highly populated civilian areas.


The theft and unauthorized flying of planes has already occurred in the past in the US, with a notable incident in 2018 where Richard Russel stole a plane from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and crashed it in a forest nearby.[4] Thefts of aircraft in Tupelo and Seattle suggest a systematic weakness in airports’ security measures against intruders across the US. Therefore, there is a moderate risk of similar events occurring again because several airports have not yet achieved a sufficient degree of security.


Analysis indicates there is a MODERATE PROBABILITY that individuals with suicidal or terrorist aims will continue stealing planes from small, unsecured airports unless the security protocols are tightened. This would endanger the perpetrator and airport staff and civilians living nearby, as there is a high probability that an unskilled pilot will crash into nearby buildings. An aircraft of any dimension has the potential for significant property damage and could cause a lethal incident in case of a crash at high speed. The Tupelo case showed that high-risk locations include traditional targets, such as political buildings, and common locations without particular ideological meaning. Every location adjacent to small airports has a high probability of becoming the target or crashing site of a similar incident.


CTG recommends creating a more accessible national digital database of the “N” numbers registered to licensed aircraft to facilitate easier tracking for law enforcement personnel and any employee working at an airport or airstrip. The perpetrator will likely be an employee of the airport or someone familiar with the premises, able to understand how to disable locks on the plane and entering the airstrip. Routine check-ins on employees’ mental health and stress factors influencing mental health such as financial well-being, family affairs, and general health could likely prevent future attacks by staff members. The CTG also recommends conducting a new study regarding aircraft theft as some materials are 40 years old and could require updates to enhance their security.

 

[1]Beechcraft King Air C90” by Mike Charlie licensed by Creative Commons

[2] Pilot threatening to crash into Tupelo Walmart charged, WAPT, September 2022 https://www.wapt.com/article/pilot-circling-tupelo-threatens-to-crash-into-building/41071583

[3] Pilot threatening to crash into Tupelo Walmart charged, WAPT, September 2022 https://www.wapt.com/article/pilot-circling-tupelo-threatens-to-crash-into-building/41071583

[4] “Man Steals Plane And Crashes After 'Unauthorized Takeoff' From Seattle Airport” NPR, August 2018 https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.npr.org/2018/08/11/637747839/plane-crashes-after-unauthorized-takeoff-from-seattle-airport&sa=D&source=docs&ust=1662297617415534&usg=AOvVaw0MCWl5HUsRGLL1ijBp4VjN

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