The airline employee who stole an empty plane, took off from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and crashed into a small island has been revealed as 29-year-old Richard Russell.
The married airport worker “hijacked” the Bombardier Q400 twin-engine turboprop plane before taking it for a ride as he was pursued by F-15 fighter jets. He told an air traffic controller he was “just a broken man” minutes before dying when the plane crashed into a small island on Seattle’s Puget Sound.
Russell didn’t have a pilot’s licence, and authorities say it’s unclear how he attained the skills to do loops in the aircraft before crashing about an hour after taking off.
His devastated family released a statement describing the airline employee, whose nickname was Beebo, as a “warm and compassionate man”.
Russell worked for Horizon Airlines, a sister carrier of Alaska Airlines, as a ground service agent who helped baggage handlers and was part of Horizon’s tow team, which moved planes around on the tarmac.
Here is a statement from the family of Richard Russell, the Horizon Air employee who stole a plane, crashed it into Ketron Island.
“This is a complete shock to us. We are devastated by these events and Jesus is truly the only one holding this family together right now.” pic.twitter.com/5z4BYRBrcU
— Kierra Elfalan (@KierraElfalanTV) August 12, 2018
Officials revealed he used a machine called a ‘pushback tractor’ to first manoeuvre the aircraft so he could board and then take off on Friday evening local time.
In a video posted on YouTube last December, Russell shows luggage coming off and being loaded onto aircraft, and describes what the life of a ground service agent can entail.
“That means I lift a lot of bags, like a lot of bags, so many bags,” he says, adding, “it allows me to do some pretty cool things, too.” There are then shots of trips he took, including flying over Alaskan fjords, visiting lavender fields in France, touring in Yucatan, Mexico, and attending a hurling match in Dublin, Ireland.
There was no mention in the social media posts of studying to become a pilot but in some posts he spoke of his Christian religious faith and the possibility of joining the military.
Authorities say Russell went through various background checks to get clearance to be in the secured area
There was no connection to terrorism, Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the local sheriff’s department, said.
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.
Harrowing audio revealed the pilot joking with the controllers who begged him to land the 76-seater Horizon Air Q400 before it nosedived and burst into a fireball.
He also told them he was a “broken man” and apologised to the air traffic controller, saying: “I hope this doesn’t ruin your day.”
At one point, he said: “Hey do you think if I land this successfully Alaska will give me a job as a pilot?”
In his final moments captured by partial recordings of his conversations with air traffic controllers that were published online by Broadcastify.com, Russell said he was sorry to disappoint people who cared about him.
“Got a few screws loose, I guess,” he is heard saying in the recording. “Never really knew it until now.”
Russell’s social media posts often showed him on adventures with his wife, who he said he met in Oregon in 2010.
Investigators expect they will be able to recover both the cockpit voice recorder and the event data recorder from the plane.
Alaska Air Group CEO Brad Tilden said in a statement early on Saturday morning that the airline was “working to find out everything we possibly can about what happened.”
The airline was co-ordinating with the Federal Aviation Administration, the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board, he said.