How did air­line worker manage to steal a plane from air­port?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By Rachel La Corte and Keith Ri­dler

OLYMPIA, WASH. — In­ves­ti­ga­tors worked to find out how an air­line em­ployee stole an empty Hori­zon Air tur­bo­prop plane, took off from Sea-Tac In­ter­na­tional Air­port and 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 the man who stole a plane and flew it for about an hour Fri­day evening be­fore crashing has been iden­ti­fied as Richard B. Rus­sell, ac­cord­ing to a law en­force­ment of­fi­cial. Rus­sell is pre­sumed dead.

Rus­sell, a ground service agent at the Seat­tle-Ta­coma In­ter­na­tional Air­port, took off around 8 p.m. lo­cal time in an unau­tho­rized flight, de­lay­ing dozens of flights as the air­port en­forced a tem­po­rary ground stop.

Rus­sell was a 31/2-year Hori­zon em­ployee and had clear­ance to be among air­craft, but to their knowl­edge he wasn’t a li­censed pi­lot. The 29-yearold man used a ma­chine called a push­back trac­tor to first ma­neu­ver the air­craft so he could board and then take off Fri­day evening, au­thor­i­ties added.

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.

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.

“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 Rus­sell, 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 As­so­ci­ated Press. “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, in­clud­ing the em­ployee’s name, would not be re­leased. 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, Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the sher­iff ’s de­part­ment, said.

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

Au­thor­i­ties ini­tially said Rus­sell was a me­chanic, but Alaska Air­lines later said he was a ground service agent em­ployed by Hori­zon. Those em­ploy­ees di­rect air­craft for take­off and gate ap­proach and de-ice planes.

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.

Gary Beck, CEO of Hori­zon Air, said it wasn’t clear how the man knew to start the en­gine, which re­quires a se­ries of switches and levers. “We don’t know how he learned to do that,” he said.

Sher­iff ’s de­part­ment of­fi­cials said they were work­ing to con­duct a back­ground in­ves­ti­ga­tion on the Pierce County res­i­dent.

The air­craft was stolen about 8 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.

Pierce County Sher­iff Paul Pas­tor said the man “did some­thing fool­ish and may well have paid with his life.”

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.”

Flights out of Sea-Tac, the largest com­mer­cial air­port in the Pa­cific North­west, were tem­po­rar­ily grounded dur­ing the drama.

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 2-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.

White House Press Sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders said Satur­day morn­ing that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is “mon­i­tor­ing the sit­u­a­tion.”


This photo shows the stolen Hori­zon Air tur­bo­prop plane fly­ing over Ea­tonville, Wash., on Fri­day.

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