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One thing I've always wondered is: do airplanes have keys that you put in the ignition to start?

And on the outside doors? Otherwise how are they secured and started?

I'm interested to know about a broad range of aircraft; from GA, all the way to airliners.

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At one point buses in London did not have keys, but they had two starter buttons that needed to be pressed at the same time, the button were arranged so a child could not reach both at the same time. –  Ian Ringrose Apr 3 at 10:05
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Even if there is a key for the ignition switch, it's not necessarily required for running the plane. If you get the engine running by turning the propeller, it could just keep running on its own. Planes are mainly designed to keep themselves running in the air at all costs, and safety trumps security. –  200_success Apr 3 at 17:41
    
@200_success , I've never seen a key that turned on the starter but not the magnetos. You would need those on to start the engine. –  Jungroth Apr 3 at 23:46
    
@Jungroth A propeller can be hand-started. –  200_success Apr 4 at 0:08
    
@200_success I know that, I've done it many times. I also know that for the engine to run, it needs to have the magnetos hot. And I'll say again, I have never seen a GA airplane that required a key for the ignition, but not the magnetos. Therefore, you wouldn't be able to prop an airplane that needs a key to start. What you could do is open the cowl, disconnect the p-leads on the magnetos, and hand prop the airplane. But at that point, you're really just "hotwiring". –  Jungroth Apr 4 at 0:56

5 Answers 5

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Small planes tend to have keys, but not all. The bigger the plane the less likely a key is needed and once you get into jets, I can't think of any that need keys for engine starts. The starting and securing of engines with no keys comes down to switches and knobs.

Likewise with exterior doors, on smaller planes including private end executive jets, you can find keyed exterior doors and luggage compartments. With transport jets at airlines you won't find keys. To secure those doors the jet bridge is pulled away from the airplane so there is no physical access to the boarding door.

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Theoretically then, if someone broke into an airport and stole a mobile staircase, what's stopping them from getting into an airliner? –  Danny Beckett Apr 3 at 3:38
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@DannyBeckett nothing but the knowledge of how to operate the airplane and perhaps an astute local controller who would alert the police to the unexpected movement of the aircraft. –  casey Apr 3 at 3:39
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@DannyBeckett theoretically, if someone stole the key, what's stopping them from stealing a small plane? That's essentially the same question. "If someone can get past the security system in place, what's stopping them?" –  Bret Copeland Apr 3 at 3:40
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@DannyBeckett also, there are examples of people stealing airliners. Typically it's by pilots who already have some amount of access and certainly the knowledge to operate the aircraft. –  Bret Copeland Apr 3 at 3:44
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@BobbyAlexander; well, that, but there's also this thing called airport security where these types of aircraft are sitting, with fences, gates, and guards. If you get through those, I don't think a lock on the plane would provide much extra security. –  falstro Apr 3 at 6:35

Private aircraft tend to be parked at airports with no effective security, and owned by individuals who expect to start and lock it like a car. I've seen many, and they all had ignition keys. Small aircraft (mainly single-engine) are also more-or-less interchangeable - if you can fly a Cessna you can fly a Beechcraft without any real issues so theft is a genuine concern.

Commercial aircraft are typically parked at large airports with 24-hour security, these days likely armed. And they are not interchangeable. Put a 747 captain with 20 years experience in Boeings into an Airbus 320 and he won't be able to find the light switch, never mind fly it away.

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C-160 TRANSALL has a door lock. As a military cargo aircraft sometimes lands at remote airfields (or not even airfields), this is needed to "secure" the aircraft.

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As a private pilot, single-engine land, I've flown maybe fifty different light planes--none with any more than four seats or 210HP--and all of them have had ignition keys. I haven't been in the cockpit of anything bigger.

Generally the keys have five positions: OFF, MAG 1, MAG 2, BOTH, and START. You insert the key at the OFF position, turn it all the way to START and hold it there until the engine catches, and then release it back to BOTH. MAG 1 and MAG 2 (sometimes LEFT and RIGHT) are for the runup check just before takeoff to make sure both your magnetos are working.

Usually the same key that fits in the ignition switch fits in the door lock. It's pretty common for a small plane to have only one door that's unlockable from the outside: you lock all the other doors from the inside, then climb out and lock the last door.

One thing I've noticed, though, is that keys and locks for small planes don't appear to be serious--at least, not the same level of serious that you see on cars and buildings. They're more serious than briefcase keys or computer-case keys, but they look about as pickable as a cheap padlock...and while I've never looked, I wouldn't be surprised if you could reach under the edge of the instrument panel, pull wires with spade lugs off the back of the ignition switch, and touch them together yourself.

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I can only speak to types I have experience with, so: Light GA singles typically have ignition keys. Light GA twins typically do not. When you get to the heavy stuff, I have no idea. :-)

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I suspect the "disappearance" of keys on (piston) multi-engine aircraft has something to do with the fact that you'd need multiple keys and ignition switches (one for each engine, to control the magnetos on that engine). Much easier with "regular" switches or knobs than to have to fumble for keys... –  voretaq7 Apr 3 at 16:48

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