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Related question: do planes have keys?

Let's say I happen to spot a fine-looking plane at my local airport and decide the owner probably wouldn't mind if I borrowed her for a little while - what stops me from stealing this plane? On commercial jets, the cockpit door is locked, but as I understand smaller planes don't have cockpit doors. The linked question suggests that single-engine planes have ignition keys, but twin-engine planes don't. Are the outer doors (cabin doors) locked? What else restricts me from walking up, climbing in, and flying away? (Other than the fact that I don't have the least clue how to fly a plane.)

(This is about all types of planes.)

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    $\begingroup$ The barriers to theft are typically access to the plane and knowledge of how to operate it. $\endgroup$ – casey Oct 9 '14 at 0:46
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    $\begingroup$ Laws and jail time are effective in preventing theft $\endgroup$ – Steve Kuo Oct 11 '14 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ @SteveKuo they may be somewhat effective, but car theft is still a somewhat serious issue, and that's illegal too (at least in the US) $\endgroup$ – raptortech97 Oct 11 '14 at 20:03
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    $\begingroup$ Very Little $\endgroup$ – abelenky May 4 '15 at 22:36
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    $\begingroup$ @raptortech97 - With the introduction of the Immobilizer system into most newer cars, theft of the car itself is on a rapid decline (though smash and grabs and in-place strip-downs like wheel thefts are still common). The main problem with putting them into most civilian aircraft is that they'd be too easily bypassed because of the simplicity of the rest of the engine system. It works in cars because those engines are computer-controlled and won't even idle properly if the computer's not working. on an aircraft it would basically control the magnetos switch, and you can bridge that in seconds. $\endgroup$ – KeithS May 11 '15 at 16:02

10 Answers 10

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There are a several theft-deterrent mechanisms in place.

  • On small airplanes, most commonly, the door to the airplane itself is usually locked with a key. (Notice the key cylinder in this picture below the silver door handle:
    Cessna door
  • Prop locks:
    There could be a prop lock (like a heavy-duty bike lock)
  • Throttle locks:
    There could be a Throttle Lock
  • A lot of airplanes do have an ignition key which you turn to engage the starter. Of course, as jaytre mentioned, this can be circumvented by hand-propping (which is a very dangerous endeavor for unskilled people who haven't done it before)
  • You would have to know how to operate the basic systems of the airplane as well as how to fly.
  • AOPA's Airport Watch Program
  • Fences and other physical security measures around airports.
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    $\begingroup$ C172s have the magnetos controlled by a key too, so you can't hand-prop it unless you hotwire it first (the same key that's used to operate the starter and to unlock the door) $\endgroup$ – Roman Oct 9 '14 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ Is that prop lock just a chain wrapped around the prop? Seems like someone with a spanner could take off the prop and then remove the chain and reattach the prop. $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Oct 9 '14 at 15:22
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    $\begingroup$ @ratchetfreak Taking off the prop is a much more complicated endeavor than that. The prop is a carefully balanced instrument! $\endgroup$ – Bassinator Oct 9 '14 at 18:24
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    $\begingroup$ Personal anecdote time: my father used a prop lock on his Cessna. The thieves specifically wanted the propeller. They left the lock behind... $\endgroup$ – CGCampbell Oct 9 '14 at 18:30
  • $\begingroup$ Hand propping wouldn't get you past the magneto keyswitch, but unscrewing the ground terminal it connects to would render it useless. (In some planes you wouldn't even need to hand-prop it because the starter is activated by a button…) $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Oct 9 '14 at 21:52
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The difficulty of first hiding and then legalizing the aircraft.

So the thief got into the plane. But what's he going to do with it? A car can be repainted in any remote garage and nobody will notice and registration is just a piece of paper relatively easy to fake. But aircraft can't be landed just anywhere. So police has manageable list of places to check for the plane and by looking at ATC recordings they can help further narrow down the search. Even if the plane flies through uncontrolled airspace only it may come up on primary radar now and then. Or get noticed by some witnesses if it flew very low to avoid that.

And then the thieves need to get a new registration for it to be able to use it or sell it. So they have to create a fake registration and re-register the plane. But for planes this is much more thorough process than for cars, so the risk the civil aviation authority of given state will notice some discrepancy between the fake papers and various databases that will inevitably exist is again pretty high.

So even if the thief would be able to get into the plane, they would have hard time avoiding being caught later, taking away the motivation to try stealing a plane in the first place.

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    $\begingroup$ tl;dr fencing a stolen aircraft is a lot more trouble than fencing a stolen car $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Oct 9 '14 at 12:24
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    $\begingroup$ +1 They have records of nearly every airframe ever built, at least by any significant manufacturer. If you use a fake serial number, they'll know it's fake. If you use a real one, they'll know who it belongs to. $\endgroup$ – reirab Nov 5 '14 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ @sanchises: Actually, any sane drug lord does. He needs the planes to take the stuff from the jungle to somewhere they can sell it and the later point likely has air traffic control coverage and towered airport. Any doubt about aircraft registration could just draw undesired attention to the other part of the operation. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Apr 10 '15 at 6:48
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    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec Fair enough, I guess I'm not really cut out for drugdealership. Such a missed opportunity. $\endgroup$ – Sanchises Apr 10 '15 at 10:21
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    $\begingroup$ @sanchises And as far as taking a small plane for a joyride, the result is usually tragic. Even if you survive, because a plane is a motor vehicle under most state laws (though obviously registration/inspection/taxation are much different), stealing a plane is felony grand theft auto. $\endgroup$ – KeithS May 4 '15 at 20:58
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Don't know about larger jets, but GA planes do have keys, which enables the engine to cycle by ungrounding the circuit that allows a charge to pass from the magnetos to the spark plug. That said, they are usually very low-tech. I don't think engine compartments are ever locked and you could do a small bit of rewiring to bypass the ignition switch pretty easily then hand-crank the prop to start it.

To combat the low-tech ignition, many planes have lojack installed & are kept in locked hangars. Also, most airports have security cameras and ATC records radar, so a stolen plane would be pretty easy to track down.

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    $\begingroup$ Often cabin doors do have locks. Some cockpits aren't fully enclosed, so those obviously wouldn't need them. $\endgroup$ – jt000 Oct 9 '14 at 2:54
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure that lojack for aircraft is particularly common - I don't think I've ever seen an aircraft with it installed... $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Oct 9 '14 at 4:11
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for locked hangars, seems the most common/important measure in my area at least. $\endgroup$ – Relaxed Oct 9 '14 at 11:00
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    $\begingroup$ You mis-understand how magnetos work. They are specifically designed to need no external power at all - to produce a spark, all you do is rotate them (by rotating the engine). The "ignition" key on a small plane grounds the magneto to the airframe when the key is in the "off" position to PREVENT them from producing spark. $\endgroup$ – Skip Miller Oct 9 '14 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ @jaytre: Again, not quite right. The key in the "on" or "start" position does not complete the circuit - it breaks the so-called "P-lead" circuit so that the mag is no longer grounded and the electric power surge can reach the spark plugs. What you describe as "re-wiring the magneto to bypass the ignition switch" is more simply described as "disconnecting (or cutting) the P-lead". $\endgroup$ – Skip Miller Oct 9 '14 at 20:13
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There are a few factors that come into play. I will try and provide what they have and how to get around them.

Locked airport...

Most airports I have been to have some form of a fence, gate etc so you would need to get past that first. Chances are there are also cameras but a ski mask and gloves will help you out with that. Smaller fields may have less protection and you may even be able to walk right up to the hangar. But you may draw more attention to your self as the people at the smaller fields may know each other better and know that its not your plane.

Locking the plane up...

Some GA planes are hangared in presumably locked hangars. So the first thing you would need to do is get into the hangar. In this case we are talking about a door lock or a pad lock of sorts which can be generally opened with this if you practice a bit.

Ok now you are in the hangar/have the hangar door open...

Most General aviation planes do have door locks form what I have seen. These locks tend to be of the smaller key type (think pad lock key size) but Im sure they vary and newer planes carry larger keys. Most of the locks I have seen can be picked with something like this. There are types of locks that are better at preventing picks (like tubular) but they too can be picked.

Ok now you are in the plane...

Maybe the plane has a prop lock (you can get that off with a bolt cutter, but don't nick the prop).

Maybe the plane has a throttle lock, back to our lock picker to get that off.

Now you need to start the plane up. Here you have a few options one of which is to use the lock picker to turn the ignition key. Personally I would not do this for simple flight safety reasons. In this case you would bring along 3 switches with wires hanging off of them (this would work better on older planes) get under the panel and splice in some bypass switches. This would allow you to control each mag and the starter. You could also try a simple flat head screw driver and some good old force to break the tumbler and operate the starter. On newer planes with sleeker one piece dashes you may have an issue getting being it to hot wire it but I would think there is a way.

Ok now the engine is started....

The plane is running and you are taxing out, assuming no one in a nearby hangar asked you what you were doing and where Bob (our fictitious victim) was and why you were flying Bobs planes. No one is going to stop you on the taxi way or from the tower as far as I know. Now you are in the air, flying VFR to somewhere. Lets say Bob still has no idea his plane is missing since he does not intend to use it all week. You get to your home base airport with the plane and still no one is wise to what you have done. Maybe its even a private strip and no one else is there to say anything.

Now you have the plane in a "safe" place....

The first thing you do is get the plane out of sight, put it in a barn maybe, get out your aircraft paint stripper and get rid of that N-Number would be your first task. Maybe strip more of the paint so as to make the plane harder to identify. Now you are thinking you will do one of two things with the plane, use it your self or sell it.

But you need an N-Number...

The first thing you will need to do is get a new N-Number for the plane this is where you will hit a problem as the airframe is already registered to Bob so you can't use that airframe number. I am under the impression that this where the road will end for you as its harder to fake an airplane number since they are far more closely tracked than say a car vin where you can use one out of a wrecked car (to an extent, its still illegal but technically can be done) There may be salvation laws for planes as well that you can exploit here if you can get a wrecked version of the same plane.

But Can I Sell It...

Maybe you can part it out and sell it, plane parts do command a high price. But with out the log books you may have an issue proving the time on a lot of the parts. Chances are Bob did not leave his aircraft logs in the plane but maybe he did (bad idea Bob). Now you can just part it out but you cant sell the whole plane. In trying to do that someone is going to be asking about the lack of N-Number and the log books. But hey, you tried.

What about a joy ride...

Well sure, we have already established that you can get into the plane and fly it away, you could very well return it (with a bunch of broken locks) to where you found it.

The only question is can you fly the plane...

Remember every plane is different, while you may be able to saunter into the cockpit of some pretty heavy metal you may have no idea what you are doing or how to get it off the ground. I have no idea how to start a jet engine so I doubt I could just hop in one and fly away no matter how accessible the plane is. Lets say you have used X-Plane a bit to much and know how to start up and (theoretically) fly the plane, everyone here knows that theory and practice are not the same thing. Even if I got into the cockpit of a running jet I would still need to actually fly it. So on some level you are limited by experience unless you are a well trained pilot, well trained thief, and in general a criminal.

Please note I do not condone or endorse (or have ever been involved in) aircraft theft in any way. For the sake of argument I am presenting the facts to answer a hypothetical question. If for any thing, don't ruin Bob's week....

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Given the very lightweight construction of GA aircraft, any physical security to the cabin will do nothing more than make the owner feel better about it. Propeller locks like the one in the other answer's picture are highly effective - you won't be going anywhere with it on, and it makes an awful lot of noise cutting it off. mind you don't cut the prop blade in the process.

Commercial jet cockpits aren't locked to prevent someone flying away with it, they are locked to prevent hijacking. This is new since 2001 - before that the cockpit door was no stronger than the one on the toilet.

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    $\begingroup$ The physical security will do something. It will differentiate thief from authorized person on the security surveillance camera footage. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Oct 9 '14 at 10:07
  • $\begingroup$ True, assuming the GA airport has cameras. $\endgroup$ – paul Oct 9 '14 at 11:47
  • $\begingroup$ Even if it does not it increases the risk somebody will notice and call the police. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Oct 9 '14 at 12:22
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Nobody so far seems to have mentioned gust locks. These are physical blocking devices intended to prevent the movement of control surfaces. Some are placed directly on those control surfaces, others are placed in the cockpit on the control column.

enter image description here

The primary purpose of most such devices is not a theft-deterrent; they're typically used to prevent the control surfaces moving incidentally while the aircraft is parked (mainly due to high winds, hence "gust" lock), but some designs can be keyed to prevent their removal by someone other than a keyholder (again the primary intention is not theft prevention, but more a "maintenance lockout" preventing manipulation of control surfaces from the cockpit while a mechanic is working with moving parts), and such devices would be the equivalent of "The Club" for aircraft, preventing a would-be thief from being able to maneuver the aircraft even on the ground.

Some locks are intended to stymie operation of the aircraft in any meaningful way with the lock installed (for instance, physically blocking access to the magnetos switch), but nothing's foolproof (fools are too inventive) and there have been several fatal crashes recorded where the pilot attempted to take off with a gust lock still installed and the resulting loss of control was unrecoverable.

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There is a threat that a large heavy jet could be stolen while parked at a remote airport at night (see Skywest aircraft stolen video). The crew entry doors and cockpit doors are not locked when not in flight. There are other means of entering the aircraft through electrical doors or cargo door area. You do not need keys to start the aircraft and everything from starting the APU to the engines is done by toggle or push button switches. Airport security is the only protection and the fence line. Its just a matter of time before its done and flown into the closest large living structure after takeoff. 9-2-2014 10 Airbus aircraft stolen from Libya, 5-25-2003 727 stolen all these aircraft are still missing.

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    $\begingroup$ do you have sources for the last statements you make? $\endgroup$ – Federico Feb 25 '16 at 18:35
  • $\begingroup$ The Libyan situation in 2014 is hardly relevant since the rebels captured the whole airport. This was part of looting during a war, not just a thief who slipped off with a few planes. $\endgroup$ – Cody P Jun 1 '16 at 21:11
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Just to see how "easy" it is you can watch here:

http://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/airplane-repo/

Even though they have a skilled pilot, fun television crew for distraction and staying low key, permission slip to reposess, etc.. it's still no easy feat to actually pull off as the show proves.

The other answers already point out the problems you encounter when actually trying this and having the airplane :-) but I'd thought i'd point out this show.

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  • $\begingroup$ Two important things here: Presence of a very skilled pilot with experience in many different airframes, and almost more importantly: a plan for what to do with the plane once they have it in their possession (return it to the lender). I'm sure you know but worth pointing out: the TV crew wasn't actually there when it happened for real. It's all re-enacted (poorly and hilariously). $\endgroup$ – Canuk 8 hours ago
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This is for Federico Google the Libya aircraft stolen A300 aircraft. The 727 has a long history and searched for by the FBI,CIA and TSA.

This is for Cody P: You are correct in regard to the Libyan situation. The point is that it can be done in the US also. How do you get 10 A300's flown out of a Libya by a bunch of rebels.

I have been a pilot and heavy jet mechanic for 42 years for a major freight airline. Its not if but when this will happen. I invented a tool to prevent it have a patent pending but no customers because the FAA,TSA have not mandated it. Just a matter of time! You can steal a general aviation aircraft very easily if you know how to bypass the Mag system without the key. But as a weapon you can not do much damage. As for heavy jets we all saw what happened on 9-11!

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Well, theoretically nothing.

As mentioned above, there are some security measures such as secure airports with secure access ramps, security personnel around the clock, ramp lighting with periodic visits from airport police. Aircraft can be kept in locked hangars equipped with alarms and video surveillance. And the entrances to most aircraft can be locked.

Then there's the aircraft itself. Most small GA aircraft have key imterlocks on their starters. Owners have become pretty complacent and have left keys available in the aircraft, which facilitate the theft spree in 2010 by Colton Harris Moore aka The Barefoot Bandit. Moore used these opportunity combined with a little piloting experience gleaned from Microsoft Flight Simulator to steal several GA aircraft, including one from Indiana all the way down to the Bahamas.

Larger, more complex aircraft do not. However they generally have specific startup procedures or may require external sources of electric or pneumatic power to start up, not commomly known to a typical thief, making it difficult st start up, as a guy who tired to steal a life flight helicopter recently found out.

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