Authorities probe how Seattle airline employee could steal plane

Investigators are working to find out how an airline employee was able to steal an empty Horizon Air turboprop plane from Sea-Tac International Airport and crash it into a small island in the Puget Sound after being chased by military jets that were quickly scrambled to intercept the aircraft.

Military jets chase aircraft seen doing dangerous manoeuvres with no passengers on board

Fire arising from the scene of the plane crash can be seen early Saturday on Ketron Island in Washington state. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

Investigators are piecing together how an airline ground agent working his regular shift stole an empty Horizon Air turboprop plane, took off from Sea-Tac International Airport and fatally crashed into a small island in the Puget Sound after being chased by military jets that were quickly scrambled to intercept the aircraft.

Officials said Saturday that the man was a 3.5-year Horizon employee and had clearance to be among aircraft, but that to their knowledge, he wasn't a licensed pilot. The 29-year-old man used a machine called a pushback tractor to first manoeuvre the aircraft so he could board and then take off Friday evening, authorities said.

A U.S. official briefed on the matter told The Associated Press the man was Richard Russell. The official wasn't authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

It's unclear how he attained the skills to do loops in the aircraft before crashing about an hour after taking off into a small island in the Puget Sound, authorities said.

"To our knowledge he didn't have a pilot's licence," said Horizon CEO Gary Beck, who added that there were some "incredible manoeuvres" in the unauthorized flight. Given that a commercial airplane is far more complex to operate than a small plane like a Cesna, said Beck, "I don't know how he achieved the experience that he did." 

Doesn't start with a key in the ignition

Beck said the plane is not started like a car with a key in the ignition.

"A series of switches and levers would be used to start the engine. We don't know how he was able to do that. We don't know how he learned to do that."

He crashed nearly an hour after the plane was taken from a maintenance area, though officials said that it did not appear that the fighter jets were involved in the crash of the aircraft.

This photo taken from video provided by Courtney Junka shows the stolen Horizon Air turboprop plane flying over Eatonville, Wash., Friday. (Courtney Junka/Associated Press)

In a news release issued Saturday, the North American Aerospace Defence Command said two F-15C alert aircraft were scrambled from Portland but did not fire upon the plane.

At a news conference in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, officials from Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air said that they are still working closely with authorities as they investigate what happened.

'Insider threat'

"Safety is our No. 1 goal," said Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Airlines. "Last night's event is going to push us to learn what we can from this tragedy so that we can ensure this does not happen again at Alaska Air Group or at any other airline."

The bizarre incident involving a worker who authorities said was suicidal points to one of the biggest potential perils for commercial air travel: airline or airport employees causing mayhem.

"The greatest threat we have to aviation is the insider threat," Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent and transportation security expert, told the AP. "Here we have an employee who was vetted to the level to have access to the aircraft and had a skill set proficient enough to take off with that plane."

Seattle FBI agent in charge Jay Tabb Jr. cautioned that the investigation would take a lot of time and details would not be released right away. Dozens of personnel were out at the crash site, and co-workers and family members were being interviewed, he said.

There was no connection to terrorism, said Ed Troyer, a spokesperson for the sheriff's department.

The site on Ketron Island in Washington state where the plane crashed is seen from the air Saturday. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

Video showed the Horizon Air Q400 doing large loops and other dangerous manoeuvres as the sun set on Puget Sound. There were no passengers aboard.

Alaska Airlines said the suspect was a ground service agent employed by Horizon. Those employees direct aircraft for takeoff and gate approach and de-ice planes, as well as handle baggage.

Russell went by "Beebo" on social media, and on his Facebook page, which had limited public access. He said he was from Wasilla, Alaska, lived in Sumner, Washington, and was married in 2012.

In a humorous YouTube video he posted last year, he talked about his job and included videos and photos of his various travels.

"I lift a lot of bags. Like a lot of bags. So many bags," he said.

Southers, the aviation security expert, said the man could have caused mass destruction. "If he had the skill set to do loops with a plane like this, he certainly had the capacity to fly it into a building and kill people on the ground," he said.

The plane was pursued by military aircraft before it crashed on tiny Ketron Island, southwest of Tacoma, Washington. Video showed fiery flames amid trees on the island, which is sparsely populated and only accessible by ferry. No structures on the ground were damaged, Alaska Airlines said.

Troyer said F-15 aircraft took off out of Portland, Oregon, were in the air "within a few minutes," and the pilots kept "people on the ground safe."

Crashed in wooded area

The aircraft was stolen about 7:32 p.m. Alaska Airlines said it was in a "maintenance position" and not scheduled for a passenger flight. Horizon Air is part of Alaska Air Group and flies shorter routes throughout the U.S. West. The Q400 is a turboprop aircraft with 76 seats.

Fire trucks drive toward a ferry boat headed to Ketron Island from the ferry terminal in Steilacoom, Wash., on Friday after an airline mechanic stole an empty Horizon Air turboprop plane, took off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and was chased by military jets before crashing. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

The plane crashed in a heavily wooded area of thick underbrush on the island, said Debra Eckrote, the Western Pacific regional chief for the National Transportation Safety Board. The crash sparked a two-acre wildfire.

"It is highly fragmented," she said of the plane. "The wings are off, the fuselage is, I think, kind of positioned upside down."

Investigators expect they will be able to recover both the cockpit voice recorder and the event data recorder from the plane.

The man could be heard on audio recordings telling air traffic controllers that he is "just a broken guy." An air traffic controller called the man "Rich," and tried to convince the man to land the airplane.

"There is a runway just off to your right side in about a mile," the controller says, referring to an airfield at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

"Oh man. Those guys will rough me up if I try and land there," the man responded, later adding "This is probably jail time for life, huh?"

Later the man said: "I've got a lot of people that care about me. It's going to disappoint them to hear that I did this ... Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess."

'It was something out of a movie'

Royal King told The Seattle Times he was photographing a wedding when he saw the low-flying turboprop being chased by two F-15s. He said he didn't see the crash but saw smoke.

"It was unfathomable, it was something out of a movie," he told the newspaper. "The smoke lingered. You could still hear the F-15s, which were flying low."

"Our hearts are with the family of the individual aboard, along with all of our Alaska Air and Horizon Air employees," Horizon Air Chief Operating Officer Constance von Muehlen said in a video posted on Twitter.

Gov. Jay Inslee thanked the Air National Guard from Washington and Oregon for scrambling jets and said in a statement "there are still a lot of unknowns surrounding tonight's tragic incident."

"The responding fighter pilots flew alongside the aircraft and were ready to do whatever was needed to protect us, but in the end the man flying the stolen plane crashed," Inslee said.


Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service Toll-free: 1-833-456-4566. cisisservicescanada.ca.

In French: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Kids Help Phone: Toll-free: 1-800-668-6868. Chat: kidshelpphone.ca. App: Always There by Kids Help Phone.


If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them about it, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Here are some warning signs:

  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Purposelessness.
  • Anxiety.
  • Feeling trapped.
  • Hopelessness and helplessness.
  • Withdrawal.
  • Anger.
  • Recklessness.
  • Mood changes.

With files from CBC News