He had all the proper security credentials. He had been working his shift and was believed to still be in uniform. The baggage handler didn’t seem out of place at all — until he was taxiing down the runway and taking off in a stolen passenger plane.
Media outlets identified him as Richard Russell, a 27-year-old who sparked a combination of amazement and fear as he flew — alone — a 76-seat Horizon Air Q400 plane for more than an hour before it crashed on a wooded area on Ketron Island south of Seattle.
He did a barrel roll. A daring swoop. Officials said they didn’t believe he even had a pilot’s license.
“Incredible,” Horizon Air President and Chief Executive Gary Beck said Saturday.
But investigators are still trying to understand why he decided to take the plane for what appeared to be joy ride Friday evening from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. .
The act also reignited discussions about airport and aviation security, with Alaska Airlines Chairman and CEO Brad Tilden repeating several times Saturday that passenger and employee safety was — and is — the company’s primary concern.
The FBI special agent in charge in Washington state, Jay Tabb, said Saturday that dozens of investigators were combing the crash site, where it is believed the man died. Officials have not released the man’s name.
“We are diligently investigating this matter,” Tabb said. “We will get to the bottom of it.”
It is believed he was the only one in the plane, but Tabb said that investigators haven’t confirmed that at the crash site. Officials with Horizon Air said the plane had not been scheduled to fly and was parked at a cargo parking area at the airport.
The man was authorized to tow aircraft. Officials said he rotated the plane 180 degrees using a push-back tractor to position it for takeoff at 7:32 p.m.
During the flight the renegade pilot bantered erratically with air traffic controllers who pleaded with him to land the plane, according to officials and dispatch. Officials said they lost contact with him at 8:47 p.m.
“This is probably jail time for life, huh?” said the man, according to dispatch audio reviewed by The Seattle Times. “I would hope it is for a guy like me.”
“Oh, Richard,” said an air traffic controller, “We’re not going to worry or think about that. But could you start a left turn please?”
Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, on Saturday praised the controllers who worked to assist him in the air.
In a statement, Rinaldi said of one of the controllers: “The recordings of the incident display his exceptional professionalism and his calm and poised dedication to the task at hand that is a hallmark of our air traffic controller workforce nationwide.”
Michael Ehl, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s director of operations, said 75 flights were delayed, nine flights were diverted to other airports and five flights were canceled because of the incident.
Ehl said the man who took the plane was authorized to be in the vicinity of the parked aircraft.
“He was totally credentialed,” Ehl said. “He had access to that area legitimately.”
Jeff Price, professor of aviation at Metropolitan State University in Denver, said the incident is likely to be a wake-up call for closer scrutiny and tighter security at airports and among the airlines. It will also have them reworking the way they have employees report “pre-incident behaviors” that might indicate point to a problem.
Price said that as more time has passed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, security at airports and among airlines and the TSA has gotten more lax — noting reports that have shown dangerous objects clearing security systems. The Horizon plane theft, he said, will likely force the airline industry to take a closer look at screening and identifying employees within the secure area that might be a danger.
Price said the airlines and airplane manufacturers may also look at adding layers of security to keep anyone but the flight crew from taking off in a specific plane. Special encrypted passcodes could be a part of that process, he said.
But he also said Friday’s heist of the aircraft also “falls low on the risk scale” and that the threat of a rogue pilot crashing a plane had always been present. This incident, he said, will likely make it more difficult for those who might have similar thoughts or plans about taking a plane.
“That’s always been a risk,” Price said. “But now they’ll find it harder to navigate the process because now people will be watching for it. It’s possible for a terrorist to become a pilot, but there’s a lot of water between that and what happened in Seattle.”
At one point, the pilot said: “I’m gonna land it, in a safe kind of manner. I think I’m gonna try to do a barrel roll, and if that goes good, I’m just gonna nose down and call it a night.”
Two F-15s fighter jets were scrambled from Portland, Ore., during the unauthorized flight. The fighter jets were traveling so quickly that at least one of them broke the sound barrier, setting off a sonic boom that some people in the vicinity mistook for an explosion, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
Video posted by witnesses on social media showed the plane making a barrel roll over what appears to be Puget Sound, with some people crying out in terror as the plane exited the roll in a dive toward the water, before barely pulling up in time and flying away.
“Oh, my God! Oh, my God! He’s OK? He’s OK,” one woman said in a video posted on Facebook, which showed at least one of the military jets in pursuit.
Debra Eckrote, Western Pacific regional chief of the National Transportation Safety Board, said agents were looking for flight data recorders and the remains of the airline employee.
The cockpit voice recorder could prove useful, Eckrote said. “We already have the air traffic and pilot communications, but he might have been talking to himself in the cockpit,” she said.
The plane went down in a heavily forested area with thick underbrush. First responders Friday night cleared a path to the wreckage, she said. A fire sparked by the crash was out by daylight.
The plane did not hit any structures, according to an Alaska Airlines statement. Ketron Island is primarily undeveloped, with a few homes toward the north end of the island, according to a Pierce County web site.
Whether the crash was intentional is among the many questions facing investigators. According to the dispatch audio reviewed by The Seattle Times, the man cryptically told air traffic controllers: “I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this. I would like to apologize to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it, until now.”
Jimmy Thomson, deputy editor of Canadian investigative environmental news outlet The Narwhal, compiled portions of the air-traffic recording. In one clip, the man says he wouldn’t know how to land the plane. “I wasn’t really planning on landing it,” he says.
On a blog belonging to Russell, created last year for a communications class at Washington State University, he wrote that he lives in Sumner with his wife, Hannah. He said he was born in Key West, Fla., and moved to Wasila, Alaska, at age 7.
Russell said he and his wife ran a bakery for three years in Oregon before moving to Washington in 2015 to be near her family. He said he got the job at Horizon so he could travel to Alaska to visit his family.
In one post, he says he never imagined himself as a ground services agent because it seemed like miserable work. “I always felt bad for the guys and gals who handled luggage,” he wrote.
But later, he said, he was glad to have been turned down after an interview for a customer service agent position. “I’ve since learned that angry people can be much more exhausting than heavy bags,” he wrote.
© 2018 Los Angeles Time
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.