An airline ground
Unknown is how he learned to fly craft he crashed
agent stole a turboprop plane in Seattle and led fighter jets on a wild chase before his fatal crash into a small isle in Puget Sound, officials say.
“This is probably jail time for life, huh?” — Audio recording of the man who stole a plane on Friday night from Sea-Tac International Airport
OLYMPIA, Wash. — Investigators are trying to figure out 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 military jets that were quickly scrambled to intercept the aircraft.
Officials said Saturday that the man was a 3 1⁄2-year Horizon employee who had clearance to be among aircraft, but that 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.
Authorities have not yet publicly identified the man, but The Associated Press reported Saturday that he was Richard Russell, a baggage handler for Horizon Air.
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. He crashed nearly an hour after the plane was taken from a maintenance area, though officials said that it did not appear that the fighter jets were involved in the crash of the aircraft.
In a news release Saturday, the North American Aerospace Defense Command said two F-15C alert aircraft were scrambled from Portland, Ore., but did not fire upon the plane.
At a news conference in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, officials from Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air said that they are working with authorities as they investigate what happened.
“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,” said Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Airlines.
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,” said Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent and transportation security expert. “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 right away.
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.
Video showed the Horizon Air Q400 with no passengers aboard doing large loops and other maneuvers as the sun set on Puget Sound. There were no passengers aboard.
Authorities initially said the man believed to be 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, as well as handle baggage.
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.
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 has 76 seats.
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 him to land.
“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.”
The turboprop plane, stolen by a baggage handler, crashed Friday night on this site on Ketron Island in Washington state after being chased by two F-15C military jets.