Plane thief: ‘This is prob­a­bly jail time for life, huh?’

Au­thor­i­ties probe how airline worker man­aged to steal air­craft, spark­ing chase by U.S. mil­i­tary jets

Times Colonist - - World - RACHEL LA CORTE and KEITH RIDLER

OLYMPIA, Wash­ing­ton — In­ves­ti­ga­tors were on Satur­day try­ing to piece 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 U.S. mil­i­tary jets that were quickly scram­bled to in­ter­cept the air­craft.

Of­fi­cials said that the man was a three­year Hori­zon em­ployee and had clear­ance to be among air­craft, but, 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 added. A U.S. of­fi­cial told the As­so­ci­ated Press the man was Richard Rus­sell.

It’s un­clear how he at­tained the skills to do loops in the air­craft be­fore crash­ing into a small is­land in the Puget Sound, au­thor­i­ties said.

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

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.

The North Amer­i­can Aerospace De­fence Com­mand said Satur­day that two F-15C alert air­craft were scram­bled from Port­land, but did not fire upon the plane.

The plane crashed in a heav­ily wooded area of thick un­der­brush on the is­land, said De­bra Eck­rote, the Western Pa­cific re­gional chief for the U.S. 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.”

At a news con­fer­ence at Seat­tleTa­coma In­ter­na­tional Air­port on Satur­day, of­fi­cials from Alaska Air­lines and Hori­zon Air said that they were work­ing closely with au­thor­i­ties as they in­ves­ti­gate what hap­pened. Hori­zon Air is part of Alaska Air Group and flies shorter routes in the western U.S. and Canada, in­clud­ing Vic­to­ria.

“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. 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 spokesman for the sher­iff’s de­part­ment.

The air­craft was stolen about 8 p.m. Alaska Air­lines said it was in a “main­te­nance po­si­tion” and not sched­uled for a pas­sen­ger flight. The Q400 is a tur­bo­prop air­craft with 76 seats.

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 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.

Gary Beck, CEO of Hori­zon Air, said it wasn’t clear how the man knew how to start the en­gine, which re­quires a se­ries of switches and levers.

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

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

A still from video shows the stolen Hori­zon Air tur­bo­prop plane fly­ing over Ea­tonville, Wash­ing­ton, on Fri­day evening.

The stolen plane crashed in a heav­ily wooded area of thick un­der­brush on Ketron Is­land in Wash­ing­ton state, spark­ing a two-acre wild­fire, a U.S. Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board of­fi­cial said.

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