Catch me if you can… Oh, they did. Italy grounds its real-life 'pilot' con-man

Life imitates film – only this imposter proves to be not so convincing

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The Independent Online

The right suit and a properly-ironed shirt can get you into a surprising number of places, as one chancer masquerading as a pilot discovered when he blagged his way into the cockpit of a passenger jet.

Police in Italy have revealed how the 32-year-old unemployed man, who was arrested in Turin last week, flew in the cockpit of an Air Dolomiti plane from Munich to the northern Italian city on 6 April this year.

No motive has been suggested for the man's actions, but the incident immediately drew comparisons with the real life case of Frank Abagnale, a con-man who flew as a fake Pan American pilot in the 1960s. He was played by Leonardo Di Caprio in the 2002 Hollywood film Catch Me If You Can.

A police statement said: "On at least one occasion in 2012, pretending to be a pilot of a foreign commercial airline, and with a fake name, he succeeded in flying as the third pilot in the cockpit." Officials insist that he did not touch the controls. However, investigators are now trying to establish if the man flew on other planes.

The suspect was seized at a bar outside Turin Airport's check-in area. He was said to be sipping a coffee and dressed in a pilot's uniform. Investigators have accused him of endangering air transport security, and impersonation.

The fake pilot even led police to a garage containing neatly pressed white shirts with epaulets, black trousers and jackets, like those worn by pilots.

They also found forged IDs and fake flight theory manuals. Before his arrest, police had been tracing the suspect for several months after it emerged that he had created a fake identity as a Lufthansa pilot named Andrea Sirlo, complete with a Facebook page, which included fake flight attendant friends.

According to press reports yesterday, investigators were alerted after he introduced himself as a captain to a civil aviation lieutenant, who was immediately suspicious because he appeared too young for the position.

Photos on his bogus Facebook profile showing him posing in a pilot's uniform and dark glasses, enabled police to trace him.

It also emerged that a profile on the website that allows users to track the flights of pilots shows a "Pilot Andrea Sirlo" flying from Munich Airport to Turin on 23 October last year.

Air Dolomiti is part of the German airline Lufthansa, which declined to provide details when quizzed about the case. But its spokesman Christoph Meier insisted that even a staff pilot could not have boarded the plane without a ticket.

The incident is the latest that has seen Italian airport safety come under the spotlight. In July, security officials at Rome's Fiumicino airport were caught napping when a drunken Norwegian tourist fell asleep on his luggage and travelled down a check-in conveyor belt before finally being spotted on an X-ray machine.

Italy's civil aviation authority Enac asked Rome's Fiumicino airport operator to explain how the tourist was able to travel unchallenged for 50 metres on the luggage belt.

That incident occurred on 23 July – the same week as the "Rome Alone" case in which an 11-year-old boy was able to flight to Rome from Manchester, passing five security checks, by himself without any documents.