Considering that cars and some other modes of transportation use keys to start the engine and lock the doors for security, it’s only natural to wonder whether airplanes have keys or not.

If they do, how do they work, and are the same keys used for ignition and security?

If they don’t, how can a plane start and be kept secure?

These are all good and important questions. Interestingly, the answer actually depends on the type of aircraft.

In short, anything larger than a small general aviation airplane doesn’t require a key to start, though a key may still be used for security purposes.

Conversely, many helicopters have keys, especially piston-powered powered helicopters. 

Aircraft Type

Small General Aviation Aircraft

Small general aviation aircraft, like the Cessna 180, usually do require keys to start as well as for security purposes.

Owners of these planes usually leave their planes parked in hangars or tied down outdoors where their safety can’t be guaranteed and they can’t be watched around the clock as commercial airliners may be, for example.

In many cases, the same key is used to start the engine and lock the door of the plane. A key may also be required to secure luggage compartments, for the fuel caps, etc.

However, if someone is determined to steal a small general aviation aircraft, they will probably be able to.

The keys and locks used on these planes are easy to pick, as many owners have unfortunately found out.

Therefore, to further ensure safety, small general aviation aircraft owners often purchase an inexpensive throttle lock device.

Private Jets

Private jets have keys, though they are mainly used just for safety purposes – i.e. locking the door and external compartments.

Flying a private jet isn’t as simple as turning an ignition key, firing up the engine, and then you get going.

Private jets are equipped with complex systems where a variety of switches and knobs have to be pressed in order to start the engine.

Because of this, there is less chance of theft.

See Also: How Much Does a Private Jet Cost?

Military Aircraft

Military aircraft, like fighter jets, rarely require keys at all.

There is just a latch to gain access to the plane, and then a number of switches, dials, and levers have to be used in the correct sequence to fire up the engine.

If someone steps into a military plane, there is a close to zero percent chance they will be able to fly it unless they have knowledge of that particular plane.

Even if someone was able to start up the engine, actually flying the plane in terms of aviating, navigating, and communicating presents an entirely different challenge that requires extensive prior training.

Practically the only scenario where a military aircraft is stolen is when a military pilot who is already familiar with the plane attempts to defect.

Commercial Airliners

The airplanes used by airlines (also known as commercial airliners) don’t use keys.

Planes like the Boeing 747 and Airbus A320, which are commonly used by airlines, are under constant surveillance, so the likelihood of theft is incredibly low.

Not to mention that commercial airliners use very complex systems that require years of training before a pilot is able to fly one.

In fact, the FAA requires 1,500 flight hours to be logged before an individual is even eligible to become an airline pilot.

How Airplanes With Ignition Keys Start Up

In smaller airplanes that require ignition keys to start the engine, typically the keys have five positions:

  • OFF
  • MAG 1
  • MAG 2
  • BOTH

To start the engine, a pilot does the following:

  • Inserts the key at the OFF position
  • Turns it to START and keeps it there until the engine catches
  • Then release it back to BOTH
  • MAG 1 and MAG 2, which are sometimes labeled as LEFT and RIGHT are used for the runup check to ensure both the magnetos (a self-contained generator of high voltage that provides ignition to an engine through spark plugs) are working before takeoff

Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.

Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.

Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.