Of­fi­cials: Man who stole plane, died in crash not a pi­lot

The Western Star - - WORLD -

In­ves­ti­ga­tors are piec­ing to­gether how an air­line ground agent stole an empty com­mer­cial air­plane, took off from SeaTac 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 that the man was a 3.5-year Hori­zon Air­lines em­ployee and had clear­ance to be among air­craft, but that to their knowl­edge, he wasn’t a li­censed pi­lot.

The 29-year-old used a ma­chine called a push­back trac­tor to first ma­noeuvr the air­craft, which was in a main­te­nance area, 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.

Video showed the Hori­zon Air Q400, a tur­bo­prop plane that seats 76 peo­ple, do­ing large loops and other dangerous ma­noeu­vrs as the sun set on Puget Sound.

Two F-15C air­craft were scram­bled from Port­land and pur­sued the plane but au­thor­i­ties say they didn’t fire on it 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 by the plane, which sparked a small wild­fire.

“It is highly frag­mented,” De­bra Eck­rote, the Western Pa­cific re­gional chief for the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board, 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.

Rus­sell is pre­sumed to have died in the crash.

He could be heard on au­dio record­ings telling air traf­fic con­trollers that he is “just a bro­ken guy.”

An air traf­fic con­troller tried to con­vince him 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 LewisMcCho­rd.

“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.”

Rus­sell’s fam­ily said in a state­ment that they are stunned and heart­bro­ken. They ref­er­enced the record­ings of him talk­ing to air traf­fic con­trollers and said and that it’s clear Rus­sell, who went by the nick­name “Beebo,” didn’t in­tend to harm any­one and “he was right in say­ing that there are so many peo­ple who loved him.”

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.

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

AP PHOTO

Work­ers gather in a stag­ing area Satur­day, near Steila­coom, Wash., near the site on Ketron Is­land in Wash­ing­ton state where an Hori­zon Air tur­bo­prop plane crashed Fri­day af­ter it was stolen from Sea-Tac In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

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