FBI seeks motive for plane crash
Questions asked after ‘suicidal’ employee is able to steal aircraft
SEATTLE — Federal authorities on Saturday were seeking to learn what drove an airline worker to steal an empty airplane from Seattle’s airport in a security scare that caused the scrambling of US fighter jets and ended when the plane crashed.
A Horizon Air ground service agent got into a Bombardier Q400 turboprop aircraft on Friday night in a maintenance area at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and took off, Horizon sister carrier Alaska Airlines said.
He flew for about an hour, often erratically and with attempts at aerial stunts, before crashing onto sparsely populated Ketron Island in Puget Sound, 40 kilometers to the southwest.
The 29-year-old man, who has not been officially identified, was suicidal and appeared to have acted alone, according to authorities. He was believed to have been killed in the crash.
Co-workers said the 29-year-old airport worker nicknamed “Beebo” who commandeered an empty passenger plane from Seattle’s main airport, then crashed it into the island, was “quiet” and “very friendly”.
The local sheriff described Horizon Air employee Richard Russell as “suicidal” when he flew off in an empty passenger plane from Seattle’s main airport late on Friday.
Russell’s family, however. used words as “warm” and “compassionate” to describe the married man who once owned a bakery.
Two F-15 fighter jets chased the twin-engine turboprop plane that Russell had hijacked for more than an hour. He flew the Bombardier Q400 plane in a loop — an improbable stunt caught on video by a surprised bystander — then slammed it into the sparsely populated island in Puget Sound.
In partial recordings of Russell’s conversations with air traffic controllers that were published online, he said he was sorry to disappoint people who cared about him and described himself as a “broken guy”.
“Got a few screws loose, I guess,” Russell is heard saying in the recording. “Never really knew it until now.”
Everybody’s stunned ... that something like this would happen. How could it?”
Rick Christenson, retired operational supervisor
Authorities ruled out any link to terror.
“It may seem difficult for those watching at home to believe, but Beebo was a warm, compassionate man,” read a letter from Russell’s family released to the US media.
We are “stunned and heartbroken” by the incident, read the letter, which the family said would be the only statement they would make.
“He was a faithful husband, a loving son, and a good friend ... This is a complete shock to us.”
Russell’s role at Horizon, where he had worked since 2015, involved towing aircraft, loading and unloading cargo and luggage, and cleaning the aircraft, officials said. Initial reports said he was an airline mechanic.
Rick Christenson, an operational supervisor with Horizon Air who recently retired, told the newspaper that Russell was “a quiet guy. It seemed like he was well liked by the other workers”.
Security personnel were shocked by how easily Russell was able to fly off with the 76-seat turboprop plane.
“Everybody’s stunned ... that something like this would happen,” said Christenson. “How could it? Everybody’s been through background checks.”
Russell “had access legitimately” to the plane, said Mike Ehl, director of aviation operations at the airport, adding that “no security violations were committed”.
Gary Beck, CEO of Alaska Airlines affiliate Horizon, said: “Commercial aircraft are complex machines ... No idea how he achieved that experience.”