The Airplane Thief

Page 5 of 7

There was no turning back for Colton once he left Griffin Home. He had violated the terms of his sentence, which would only add to the time he would be locked up. If they were going to catch him again, he decided, they would have to do it while he was pursuing his dream. He knew he wasn't going to win his wings by conventional routes: the military, college, flight school. He'd have to train himself, which would take time and resources.

What he did after fleeing Griffin can't be confirmed, but police suspect he resorted to his old habits. Two weeks after escaping from the home, they say, Colton was back on Camano, hitting the weekend homes hard. He applied for credit cards with info stolen from burglary victims, and had one sent to him at a mailbox he installed by his mother's property. (While he was at it, his mother insisted on cooking him a big breakfast – hash browns and eggs and sausage and bacon. Then he took off so she wouldn't get in trouble for harboring him.) He allegedly used the stolen cards to withdraw $300 in cash, and he went online and ordered card scanners and two iPods. He managed to stay off the police's radar for three months, until a deputy spotted him driving a stolen Mercedes. When the deputy gave chase, Colton jumped from the car and escaped into the woods.

Colton was clearly enjoying himself: ­Police recovered a backpack from the Mercedes containing a digital camera with photos he had taken of himself. In one, he's lying on his back among the trees and ferns, wearing a Mercedes polo shirt and smirking as he listens to one of his ­stolen iPods. The photo would become the iconic image of Colton, emblematic of his outlaw mystique: a cocky, resourceful thief, comfortable on the lam, doing his own thing.

Based on the photo, it was easy to assume that Colton was a survivalist, living in the forests of the Pacific Northwest like a boy Rambo or a "feral child," as one Camano detective called him. To track him down, the police sent out dog teams and helicopters equipped with infrared radar, but they never found a trace. That's because Colton was most likely staying in vacant homes or with friends: He wanted to fly, and he needed to be close to the Internet to prepare himself. He could download training programs like Microsoft Flight Simulator or X-Plane, fire them up on a stolen laptop or desktop and practice for hours. Both programs offered dozens of planes to choose from, with realistic terrain and cockpit displays, weather settings and thousands of airports. By early November, seven months after leaving Griffin Home, his secondhand knowledge had reached its limit. He needed to fly solo, and the only way to do it was to steal a plane.

Airplane theft is a rare crime. In 2009, only seven airplanes were stolen in the United States; the suspects are almost invariably members of drug cartels, who use the planes to transport their products. Almost unheard of are thieves like Colton, who take to the sky with no practical experience and no greater motivation than to simply be airborne. An article in a 1929 edition of Popular Science tells the tale of a British mechanic who, responding to a dare, took off in a bomber. "He was gone for four hours and Royal Air Force planes went out to look for him or the wreckage," reads the account. "When he was sighted on his way back, they rushed fire apparatus to the landing field, expecting him to crash. But he made a safe landing, even if it was obviously inexpert." More recently, in March of last year, a Texan named Joshua Paul Calhoun commandeered a Bonanza 836 from a municipal airport and crashed it in a stand of trees five miles after taking off, walking away with only minor injuries. Later, in a jailhouse interview, Calhoun explained his motivation to a reporter in terms that Colton could relate to: a life-long fascination with flying.

Once Colton reached the hangar at Orcas Island Airport on the night of November 11th, his burglary experience came in handy. The door was locked, but he had no trouble forcing it open. There in front of him was the Cessna 182 that police say he had scoped out earlier that day. He rummaged around the hangar until he found a key to the Cessna, then climbed into the cockpit.

Colton browsed the manual, which owners are required to keep in the plane. Then, at first light, he switched both fuel tanks to the "on" position, pushed the mixture-control rod to "full-in" so that plenty of fuel would reach the engine, and flipped on the fuel pump to prime the aircraft. Moments later, after turning the key and pushing in the throttle, he found himself racing down the runway at 80 miles per hour, with nothing but the cold, unwelcoming waters of Puget Sound beyond. As the Cessna's nose wheel tipped off the tarmac, he pulled back on the yoke, and the plane popped gently off the earth.

After nearly 18 years of dreaming, he was flying.

Whether or not Colton had a destination in mind is known only to him, but his options were surprisingly limited. Unless he wanted to draw attention by crossing into Canadian airspace, his best bet was to stay far enough east, which is precisely what he did. He banked southeast, toward the Cascades. Heavy rain was pounding the mountains that morning, but to avoid the weather all he had to do was climb to 10,000 feet. There, he could soar between blue sky and a cottony sea of white, with Mount Rainier peaking through the clouds to his right like a sugar castle. Except for the occasional glint and contrail of an airliner, it was a world completely unmarred by humans, a bright, serene dreamscape that felt like it belonged entirely to him.

"In soloing – as in other activities – it is far easier to start something than it is to finish it," Amelia Earhart once said. She was referring to the art of safely landing an aircraft, a task that Colton faced three and a half hours after takeoff. He couldn't put down in a small airport without drawing the attention of authorities, so his only choice was an open, level field. He found one just on the east side of the Cascades, on the high plains of the Yakama Indian Reservation. He circled around, lined up for an approach and reduced speed, entering into a controlled fall that he had to precisely time and align. Bearing in to the field at more than 80 miles per hour, he was attempting a feat that had gotten pilots with far more ­experience killed.

Tribal police from the Yakama Reservation found the Cessna later that day. Its landing gear and propeller were mangled, its undercarriage crumpled. Where Colton disappeared to was anyone's guess. He was miles from the nearest town and 250 miles from home. The only trace he left behind was dried vomit in the cockpit. Whether it was brought on by airsickness or fear, it was a small price to pay. Flying had been everything Colton had imagined it would be – and better. He wanted more.

It would take almost a year for the authorities to accuse Colton of the Cessna theft. By then, he had already gained notoriety as the "Barefoot Burglar" – an alias bestowed on him after a ­security camera captured him stalking through a store he had allegedly robbed, sans shoes and socks. It was part of a frenetic string of suspected burglaries last summer, which not only included more homes but a boat, a bank, five stores, a rifle from a police cruiser, and another plane. According to the local sheriff, Colton stole his second aircraft, a Cirrus SR22, from the airport in a sleepy town called Friday Harbor, on September 11th of last year. He flew it only about 10 miles, back to the airport on Orcas Island where he had stolen his first plane – but what's remarkable is that he did it at night.

Night flying requires far more focus than daylight flight. Unless there's a good moon, physical reference comes down almost exclusively to points of light. The FAA requires pilots to be "instrument rated" to fly in low visibility, an entirely different license that means you can go from takeoff to landing based on the readings from your instrument panel alone. John F. Kennedy Jr., who was not instrument rated, died along with his wife and sister-in-law while attempting to fly on a hazy night. Colton came close to nailing it on his first try.

"He broke one of my $300 runway lights," Beatrice von Tobel, the airport manager at Orcas, says with a laugh. "But the plane was actually still flyable."

The next night, a deputy spotted the ­fugitive in the town of Eastsound and gave chase. Colton easily outran the cop, laughing as he disappeared into the woods. The deputy said that Colton had "vaporized."

He was on a tear, suspected of linking together crimes so quickly and unexpectedly that the police could do little more than tabulate the toll. After outrunning the deputy, he worked his way to a nearby marina, where he stole a small yacht and navigated 15 miles north to the town of Point Roberts, right on the Canadian border. Based on subsequent burglaries there, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police believe that Colton crossed into Canada, then made his way to the British Columbia town of Creston, where he broke into two airplane hangars at the local airstrip. Unable to find a plane to his liking, he seems to have crossed back into the U.S. on foot, stolen a car, and driven it straight to another small airport in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. There, on September 29th, he is suspected of stealing the plane that would make him famous.

This time he took a Cessna 182 belonging to a local cattle rancher who used it to fly to auctions. "He broke open the passenger door with a crowbar or a screwdriver and got in the plane," says the rancher, Pat Gardiner. "He must have spent time in there reading manuals, because they figured he got in the night before, stayed in there and then opened up the door at first light, pulled the plane out."

Colton couldn't find any keys for the Cessna, but most single-engine planes are as simple to boost as a 1974 Pinto; he apparently started it up by jamming a screwdriver into the keyhole and twisting. An airport worker who saw the plane take off reported that its engine was "firewalled" – running at full bore – but even then Colton had trouble getting off the ground. Gardiner's Cessna was equipped with a variable propeller, which is kind of like a gearshift for propellers. He was taking off in low and barely cleared the tops of the trees.

After takeoff he turned southwest, following the Kootenai Valley to Spokane, then on to Walla Walla, where he swung northwest and crossed central Washington. He was heading home – but just after crossing the Cascades, his fuel reserves ran low. A few miles outside the town of Granite Falls, he dropped down beneath a thick cloud cover to search for a place to land. That's when he found himself in serious weather – and trouble.

Gardiner was stunned when he was briefed on an FAA reconstruction of the next few minutes, during which wind gusts in excess of 30 miles per hour tossed the small plane around like a toy. Colton nearly lost control of the aircraft. "He was going 90 degrees up and every which way," Gardiner says. As he finally leveled off, Colton spotted a timber clear-cut and bore down for a landing. Eager to get out of the rough weather, he approached the stump-strewn clearing at a suicidal 110 knots – a good 40 miles per hour faster than it's safe to land. It was the equivalent of ­jumping a pickup off a hill at 130 miles per hour and trying to put it down safely in a field of fire hydrants.

Upon contact with the ground, the plane immediately began careening into tree stumps, which ripped away its wheels and buckled the undercarriage. "When he hit the ground there were only 90 feet of marks," says Gardiner. "He had about a six- or seven-G stop." In pilot ­parlance: He went from almost 130 miles per hour to a dead standstill in less than three seconds.

The air bags in Gardiner's plane deployed, probably saving Colton's life. Investigators later determined that Colton was so scared the airplane would explode that he kicked open the passenger-side door and ran from the crash still wearing his headphones. When no flames erupted, he returned and diligently rubbed a quart of oil over the interior, successfully eliminating his fingerprints.

A logger discovered Gardiner's plane two days later; three days after that a family in Granite Falls reported a burglary, and the local police quickly mobilized a search team. As they scoured the woods behind the house, one deputy reportedly heard a gunshot. "It was close, and they felt threatened," a police spokeswoman later reported – but deputies found neither Colton nor proof that he had fired a weapon.

Harley Ironwing, who had turned himself in not long after Colton, saw the story on TV in prison and instantly recognized his friend. "I said, 'That's my little partner,' " he says. "I was actually expecting him to steal a helicopter." He has a firm opinion when it comes to the gunshot. "I know there's no way Colton fired that shot. Colt may be big, but he wouldn't hurt a fly. Everybody knows the hills around ­Granite Falls are filled with tweakers. It was probably somebody worried about their meth lab."

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