An air­line ground

Un­known is how he learned to fly craft he crashed

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Rachel La Corte and Keith Ri­dler

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.”

JOHN WAULDRON TED S. WAR­REN/AP

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.

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