The barefoot pilot

Chances are you’ve heard of Colton Harris-Moore, the notorious “Barefoot Bandit.” Harris-Moore has been in the news lately for a string of burgarlies, car thefts, and interestingly, airplane thefts. The 19 year old hails from the Pacific Northwest, and that’s primarily where he operated until just a few weeks ago, when he headed east, allegedly stealing two airplanes. His final flight was a Cessna Corvalis to the Bahamas.

Harris-Moore became infamous on the Internet, raised up to icon status on Facebook thanks to 50,000 followers, and was followed diligently in the media. Outside magazine had a particularly compelling profile earlier this year that gives all the interesting background.

The public’s opinion of Harris-Moore seems to be mixed. Sure he seems to be a criminal, who’s been working against the law since he was 12. But another group likes the fact he was able to allude police for two years, and that he seemed to have a certain criminal style.

I don’t really care about all that. What amazes me is how good of a pilot he seemed to be with zero flight training. Think about his accomplishements for a minute. He was able to get in airplanes (as many as five, many of them different types), start them, taxi, take off, fly a long distance, and then survive the landing. All of this with no formal flight training. And the Corvalis is very high performance. It’s incredible. I think back to my initial flight training, and the thought of taking off, much less landing, scared me even after I started soloing. I can’t fathom doing it with no flight training.

So how did he do it? How could he possibly know what to do? Well it turns out he’s apparently quite the whiz on flight simulators. The realistic nature of today’s sims meant he was able to fly the first time he sat in an airplane. Again, I find that amazing. Most of us have thought about sims as an instrument training tool, but Harris-Moore is a shining example that even the most basic sim can be helpful in flight training.

Now, I don’t know if Harris-Moore was able to maintain the runway centerline and fly straight and level. But he clearly knew procedures, basic airspeeds, navigation, probably some communication, and at least some basics about landing. He crashed every airplane he flew, but the fact he survived the crashes seemingly unhurt illustrates how close he probably came to a decent landing.

I know there are security issues around what he did, and that his crimes weren’t victimless. And I feel terribly sorry for the owners of those houses, businesses, airplanes, boats, and cars. But all that aside, I can’t help but be impressed with his skill. If only he had taken the right path, he would have been a heck of a pilot.

–Ian Twombly

30 Responses to “The barefoot pilot”

  1. John Feet says:

    If you are going to write such an article. I believe you should be much clearer in your condemnation of such disastrous and criminally unsafe behavior. He is a criminal and for anyone associated with AOPA to even hint any any admiration for him is absolutely irresponsible. I urge you to rethink your position in GA.

  2. Ian Twombly says:

    John, I thought it was pretty clear that I don’t in any way support his crimes. I said his crimes weren’t victimless, and I understand the ramifications of his actions on the industry. If he’s found guilty, he needs to do time, and I don’t admire him. But none of that means I can’t look at the acts of flying the airplanes and be pretty shocked at what he was able to do. Have you never heard of law enforcement officials being impressed with the ability of a criminal?

  3. De Vo Long says:

    I’ve been following the stories too, starting with a pretty good article on him from Rolling Stone. Yes, I’m glad that they caught him and I hope he gets the most severe punishment that the law can give him. Even so, it is pretty astonishing that he was able to accomplish what he did without killing himself or anyone else. I wonder if he would have been so fortunate if he would have attempted this with helicopters instead of airplanes. It took a certain amount of skill, yes, but I think his luck would have run out sooner or later too. Also seems to me that it points out some pretty glaring security deficiencies with GA airports. If a teenager can do this, can you imagine what terrorist organizations could do?

  4. This just shows that computer power and flight simulator software have gotten to the point that it has come close to flight simulators that pilots may have access too. The flight gear 747 project (http://www.flightgear.org/Projects/747-JW/) has shown this to be the case. These same flight simulators are not simply limited to maneuvering the aircraft from point A to point B, they are even able to emulate ATC communication. There are enough information online that he can use to get him familiar with the regulations that would help him not be noticed by ATC–except as a blip on the radar screen squawking VFR.

    All this proves that anyone–with the patience–can actually learn to fly airplanes and even be good at it. However, I think there are things that only can be learned from competent CFI’s: the ability to make critical decisions. Granted that no CFI can teach a student pilot how to make decisions for every situation that he will encounter in his flying life; however, a CFI can provide enough practice and techniques to allow a student to be able to make the right decisions when it matters most: in a situation he has never seen, and he’s the only person in the aircraft in the position to decide what to do next.

  5. Flint Eastwood says:

    “He crashed every airplane he flew”
    Exactly! *I* am NOT impressed. Airplanes are basically easy to takeoff in, navigate isn’t terribly difficult, even fly a Corvalis, one does not need to know about prop settings, just leave it alone, altho not ideal, it will still fly, however, landing must be learned as is evident by his poor skills at doing so. I cannot believe I have read this on AOPA, very dissapointed. The guy is an idiot, simple! Ian, you are easily “amazed”…..

  6. Ian Twombly says:

    Well, you might be right Flint. But do you remember your first few flight hours? Or are you a CFI and get to see student reactions at that point in training? It’s from that perspective that I’m easily amazed, I suppose.

  7. nate_fl says:

    A very provocative position, Mr. Twombly. I can see your points. The fact that he was able to transition from a yoke control to a sidestick in the Corvalis without any training is pretty impressive to me, too. Then again, the thief wasn’t concerned about the FAA or the insurance man. I’d also be curious to know how many of the planes he stole had a sophisticated autopilot.

    This young fellow is a classic example of intelligence without maturity. Were his talents applied in a positive direction, he might have indeed been a great pilot, or a brain surgeon for that matter. Instead he seems to perseverate on the things he likes to do (fly sims for hours) and confound “authority” at every turn. A classic mix of ADD and “duper’s delight”, in psychiatric terms. Usually in wayward youths, if you look deeper, you will find some unrepentant hippie parent lurking in the background. The public statements of his mother speak volumes to why this guy did what he did. IMHO, she belongs in jail right next to him.

    $.02

  8. Anjin San says:

    Although the guy is a crook and should be punished, you still have to be impressed by his audacity.

  9. C. Drew says:

    I remember my first few hours of training. Except for the landing part, it wasn’t incredibly intimidating. But I would have been scared out of my gourd if I went up alone without formal training, even more so now that I’ve lost a few acquaintances (all career pilots) with 1000′s of flight hours to aircraft accidents.

    His boldness doesn’t impress me. He was toying with his life and the lives of everyone he flew over. I don’t know his psyche, but you do something that stupid you’re basically telling me you don’t care whether you live or die….the fact that he threatened suicide when he was caught makes me think so even more, unless it was just an act.

    He may be skilled, but I’d have serious problems having someone with this type of anti-authority personality behind aircraft controls, even if he did take lessons the right way.

  10. John Feet says:

    Ian, Yes I understand the difference between admiration and condonement, and I don’t begrudge you the observation, of course. I respect your opinion as well. I simply feel such open admiration is inappropriate when it is in association with AOPA. I am uncomfortable with my membership fee coming anywere near the statements you have made in the article. But we can disagree and still respect each other in any event. Thanks.

  11. John Feet says:

    Anjin San,
    The problem with your logic:

    “Even though Osama Bin Laden is a crook and should be punished, you still have to be impressed by his audacity.”

    Criminal acts are inherently selfish and defy the good of society. If you define such behavior as “audacity” I do not know how or why any law-abiding citizen would have to be “impressed” by such wanton disregard for human life (including his own) and personal property (not his own).

  12. John Feet says:

    To put it more succinctly:
    I do not believe the owners of the Corvalis who lost at least $120,000.00 are “impressed” or are moved to observe the apparent skill applied to affect their loss. And if the victims of the crime are not impressed or awed, I do not see why we should be.

  13. Sam Peabody says:

    I’m only impressed by his luck and the apparent lack of successful treatment for his mental disorder.

    Having said that, I think a big chunk of primary flight training is overcoming apprehension. Good pilots are always tactically thinking about available options and are more than willing to cancel a flight or cut one short when our options start to dwindle.
    This jerk doesn’t function beyond the word “go”. He’s by no means any sort of pilot like we all train to be. If his story and “success” in aviation speaks to anything it is only to the sophistication of the simulator he was used to and the time he spent with it.
    He’s very lucky he didn’t run into weather, equipment problems, cross-winds, etc. WE are lucky not to have crossed his path.

    This is probably a poor analogy, but;

    Guns are relatively complex machines that require experience and practice to use safely and proficiently. However, young people, whose only prior experience with a gun being with a computer game, have gone on to kill many people at long distances.

    Ian, if someone steals a gun and starts randomly shooting into a crowded area do we commend his shooting skills if he hits someone?

    I think the odds are astronomical that he didn’t hurt himself. We all know pilots who did everything right and still got bitten. We’ve all been spooked by something in aviation before and our immediate response is to learn from the situation and try to avoid it in the future. His response is to try again. Nothing about this guy impresses me. Now, if he stole the Space Shuttle I would agree with you.

  14. Jim Wills says:

    Man, some folks need to lighten. As soon as I read your short article, I thought to myself, “Well, here come the finger-waggers, admonishing Ian that he shouldn’t be admiring a criminal.” I didn’t have to wait long. Sure enough, your first letter.

    I had just read another aviation blog, where the question was asked about whether marijuana would be discovered on a flight physical urinalysis. Instead of providing an answer, the majority of responses were sanctimonious lectures about how, if you had to ask the question you shouldn’t be flying.

    Just read the damn article; I figure Ian knows what’s appropriate, and if he doesn’t, it’s none of your business. When you pay his bills, you can call his shots.

  15. Bryan Gordon says:

    Once again the media has made a criminal the spot light hero of the news. The Movie’s made millions on “Catch me if you Can”. Maybe a parody? Hopefully they make him accountable for all his damages.
    Ian is right to be amazed at what he did. Just shows that General Aviation needs to protect/secure our rights and freedoms of flight.

  16. Brian W says:

    He is a criminal p[eriod and I hope he does lots of time. He knew what he was doing and hurt LOTS of people, financially and emotionally. His criminal acts are already inducing “saber rattling” about having stricter security at all GA airports, with tsa review. Extreme measures are being proposed.That’s just what we don’t need. People steal cars and trucks all the time but car owners don’t have to worry about the tsa. We do, although we don’t need their involvement.
    If any further intrusion into our freedom of flight happens, my wife and I will quit flying altogether. We don’t need JERKS like this guy hurting a whole industry and an taking away from the experience and FREEDOM of an extremely fun and exciting thing like flying

  17. Ian Twombly says:

    Great discussion. I love some of the points being raised here. Sam, I chuckled because his luck is definitely something to be amazing. And John, don’t worry because this opinion is strictly my own. I’m by no means involved in shaping policy.

  18. Anthony Pucca says:

    Thanks for the piece, Ian. I think it’s obvious we all know he’s a criminal, and it’s obvious he should be punished. I don’t believe you were arguing any differently.

    But I’m very glad you highlighted something I’ve been wondering about since this story first broke: How did he know so much about flying? This is a point the media never touched on. I’ll have to catch those Outside or Rolling Stone pieces to learn more.

    Aside from admonishing both author and criminal, I think this case is a unique opportunity to look further into what motivation drove this thief to learn so much about flying –he had to love it to the point he would commit crime for it– and leverage that in our efforts to develop more young (and LEGAL!) student pilots.

  19. Capt. Robert Lawrence says:

    This young man is not a “Robin Hood” type of character. He is a troubled young man with no respect for other people or for the law. In my opinion, he has been given too much coverage in the press, which leads to the “folk hero” status.
    With regard to his flying, it also indicates very poor judgment and total disregard for the safety of others on the ground. I wonder how he would have been perceived if he had crashed on of the aircraft into a crowded area and killed several people. I think it was mostly luck that he survived without harming anyone.
    I hope he gets a stiff sentence so that other young people do not get tempted to emulate this behavior.

  20. Jeff Biamonte says:

    Objectively speaking the way I see it Ian is simply saying that although Harris-Moore is undoubtedly a reckless accused criminal who should pay for his crimes upon conviction, it’s nevertheless both surprising and fascinating what he was able to demonstrate: that flying certain planes is really not that difficult for an untrained yet highly motivated ‘pilot’.

    Consider the fantasy scenario: you’re stranded in a remote and isolated place where survival for any length of time is questionable at best. You’ve always been interested in how to fly a plane but have no formal training. But you’re smart, willing to take a chance to escape your desperate situation and the single engine Cessna sitting in that open field a few hundred yards distant sure looks like the only way out.

    Now the big question: Can you do it? Can you fly out of there and survive? Although quite the undesirable ‘trailblazer’ to demonstrate the possibilities to say the least, Harris-Moore proved the answer is ‘yes’.

  21. Bonanza Babe says:

    There’s absolutely nothing to be admired about this nut. He might be viewed as a “troubled young man” by some who would pin a politically correct label to his behavior. In reality, he’s a criminal who thumbed his nose at authority and finally got caught. As for some who say “lighten up”, and tell the rest of us that it’s none of our “damn business” what young Twombley writes,…as long as I shell out good hard earned money for my membership and this training magazine for whom he is employed, I AM paying his bills and it IS my damn business!

  22. Vern Hanna says:

    Does anyone remeber the Great Imposter? Ferdinand Demara, Jr., known as Fred was truly impressive. The book was published in 1959 and the movie was in 1960.

    Here is a short list of some vocations and accomplishments:

    Vocations
    During Demara’s “careers”, he was, among other things, a civil engineer, a sheriff’s deputy, an assistant prison warden, a doctor of applied psychology, a hospital orderly, a lawyer, a child-care expert, a Benedictine monk, a Trappist monk, an editor, a cancer researcher, and a teacher. One teaching job led to six months in prison. He never seemed to get much monetary gain in what he was doing – just temporary respectability.

    Many of Demara’s unsuspecting employers, under other circumstances, would have been satisfied with Demara as an employee. Demara was said to possess a true photographic memory and was widely reputed to have an extraordinary IQ. He was apparently able to memorize necessary techniques from textbooks and worked on two cardinal rules: The burden of proof is on the accuser and When in danger, attack. He described his own motivation as “Rascality, pure rascality”.

    His most famous exploit was to masquerade as Dr. Joseph Cyr, a trauma surgeon, aboard HMCS Cayuga, a Royal Canadian Navy destroyer, during the Korean War. He managed to improvise successful major surgeries and fend off infection with generous amounts of penicillin. His most notable surgical practices were performed on some 16 Korean combat casualties who were loaded onto the Cayuga. As the only “Surgeon” on board all eyes turned to Demara as it became obvious that several of the casualties would require major surgery or certainly die. After ordering personnel to transport these variously injured patients into the ship’s operating room and prep them for surgery, Demara disappeared to his room with a textbook on general surgery and proceeded to speed-read the various surgeries he was now forced to perform, including major chest surgery. None of the casualties died as a result of Demara’s surgeries. Apparently, this removal of a bullet from a wounded man ended up in Canadian newspapers. One person reading the reports was the mother of the real Dr. Joseph Cyr; her son at the time of ‘his’ service in Korea was actually practicing medicine in Grand Falls, New Brunswick. When news of the impostor reached the Cayuga, still on duty off Korea, Captain James Plomer at first refused to believe Demara was not a doctor (and not Joseph Cyr). The Canadian Navy chose to not press charges, and Demara returned to the United States.

    Stinson Pilot

  23. Larry Tarr says:

    I participated in a G-1000 training class a few months ago, as required by the Civil Air Patrol for member pilots to fly its planes equipped with that type of avionics. During one of our breaks, I overheard a fellow pilot explaining how his young son (9 years old if I remember correctly) had been playing with Microsoft Flight Simulator for some time. The boy sometimes accompanies his dad on private flights. According to the story, this kid was given the controls to try a real-life ILS approach in VFR conditions and he flew it perfectly on his first shot.

    My point here is that PC flight simulators have become incredibly realistic teaching tools, and the younger generation is especially adept at absorbing skills practiced on this software. Colton Harris-Moore is not the genuis so many are depicting, he simply exhibits the abilities of a great number of his peers after spending many hours “flying” planes on a computer. What differentiates CHM from the rest of the population is his total disrespect for the law and other human beings, along with a complete lack of common sense.

    An earlier poster mentioned that Harris-Moore might have been a brain surgeon (?!?!?) if he went in a more positive direction. A kid with his personality would have to lie, cheat and steal his way through medical school if at all possible. He lacks the tolerance and discipline to accept orders and conform to regulations. He wants everything to be about HIM, and his wish will most deservedly come true in prison when the inmates pass him around like a two-dollar hooker. He ultimately proved his cowardice by holding a gun to his head and threatening the Bahamian police with suicide. When they would have none of his ruse, he threw his weapon into the water.

    Yes, poor little Colton will go to jail and spend many years there. I wish it could be a lifetime sentence but that is probably not realistic in today’s world. I don’t mourn his missed opportunities and wasted so-called “talents”. There are far too many gifted young people who choose to accomplish wonderful things, starting early in life. I am personally acquainted with many of them as a member of CAP. They are the ones who earn my respect and admiration, not the felon who repeatedly converts useful and expensive vehicles like cars, boats and planes into potentially deadly weapons before destroying them.

    Perhaps my own standards for assessing talent and dishing out admiration are quite a bit higher than yours, Ian. The final statement in your artice is, “If only he had taken the right path, he would have been a heck of a pilot.” No, Sir, he would have been one of those idiots AOPA begs us not to be: the low-flying performer of aerobatics who enjoys buzzing residential neighborhoods with his antics — until someone gets killed. Some behaviors are hard-wired into one’s psyche and overall personality, which is why keeping Harris-Moore locked up for a very long time will make our society, and our valued possessions, a little safer.

  24. Ian Twombly says:

    Good points Larry. Perhaps I’m more amazed at the transition of learning that can occur from flight sim to airplane, and not CHM’s individual talents. And by saying that he would have been a good pilot, I meant pre-criminal behavior. As in, if someone would have recognized this kid needed help at age 10, and let it get this far. If he got his certificate today, yes, I agree he would fly like an idiot. Although come to think of it, I don’t remember any commentary about his flights being wild. That’s odd.

    Bonanza babe, it’s just opinion, and nothing else. This is a blog, where my goal is to have a conversation about what’s going on in the world of training, and I thought his presence in the news, and it’s tie to GA, was appropriate to discuss. So of course it’s your business. That’s why I posted my opinion. And I’m very happy you posted yours.

  25. Joe Serdynski says:

    What is the name of the prison in the Bahamas? I definitely would like to have lunch with Colton, his tales would be quite entertaining and informative.

  26. Dave Hook says:

    Hi Ian,

    We are going to pay a price for increased security requirements for Colton’s exploits–maybe by government regulation, certainly from insurance industry policy requirements. He has done our General Aviation Community no favors.

    Good article, by the way! I must agree with you, Colton does appear to have some raw talent for aviation. Too bad the only sky he’s going to see for some time will be through steel bars and tall barbed wire fences. We don’t need him running loose–barefoot or otherwise–and giving GA a bad name.

    Cheers from the Alamo,

    Dave Hook

  27. Danny Schnautz says:

    Bonanza Babe – you’re right on with your comments. With so many good people and deeds out there in America daily, why would anyone with a pulpit sing the praises of a low-bit crook?

  28. KurtB says:

    A sociopath doesn’t experience the same reactivity in the brain’s fear center as the rest of us. This enables them to carry out acts harmful to others without being inhibited by fear of punishment including a lack of self-punishing guilty feelings.

    It also enables them to perform other acts of “bravery” that are not necessarily so overly antisocial and gain the accolades of us more ordinary folks. I think of some of the most successful gunmen of the old west who were known for their ability to cooly take aim while being shot at without any sign of fear. Some of them too gained “hero” status among those who were not their victims who were in awe of their feats.

    I imagine most of us could have done much better with flying in the early stages without a burden of anxiety interfering . . . especially preceded by lots of simulator time.

    While some sociopaths are in some sense “troubled” it is not a safe assumption to make–most are quite comfortable with themselves and are only troubled by the consequences imposed on them by the rest of us who are put out by their predatory behavior and who fail so see how they are such special people that the ordinary rules ought not apply to them.

    Not to say that this individual is a sociopath, but something to think about.

  29. Aaron Larsen says:

    I was just thinking about this on my way to Day 6 of my private pilot flight training. I see both sides of the argument, but I feel very passionately about my conclusion. For the sake of me not having to type it out all over again, or to fill the page with my comment, here is my post including my video response to the Barefoot Bandit story…

    http://www.myprivatepilotlicense.com/barefoot-bandit/

    See ya above the clouds!

    ~Aaron

  30. Brigitte says:

    Very energetic article, I liked that bit. Will there be a part 2?

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