THE SKY THIEF
the Seattle metro that evening, including an open-air Pearl Jam concert at Seattle’s baseball stadium. A different pilot might have taken out the Space Needle.
The air-traffic controller kept his cool after Russell’s angry outburst. “Now, Rich, don’t say stuff like that,” he said. Russell responded after a moment, clarifying his intent: “Naw, I don’t want to hurt no one,” he said, before making another joke, his voice a little shaky: “I just want you to whisper sweet nothings in my ear.”
Russell’s banter soon returned to barroom bravado: “Hey, you think if I land this successfully Alaska will give me a job as pilot?” he asked. The pilot coaching his flight replied gamely: “I think they would give you a job doing anything if you could pull this off.” Russell retorted with an acid shot of resentment: “Yeah, right!” he said. “Naw, I’m a white guy!”
Both the pilot and air-traffic control pressed Russell to consider the possibility of a water landing. But Russell brushed it off: “I want the coordinates of that orca,” he said. “You know, the mama orca with the baby.” A local killer whale, Tahlequah, had recently suffered the death of a calf and made national news for carrying it around the Salish Sea in mourning. Russell said: “I want to go see that guy.”
Seatac Was better than average in its approach to securing the “ramp” — airline jargon for the areas of the airport outside the terminal. Reiter told Congress that her airport goes “above and beyond” what’s required, and highlighted SeaTac’s differentiated badges that limit employees to relevant portions of the airport. These badges were also backstopped by a fingerprint scan to link each badge to each employee. Since 2017, SeaTac had also become a rare airport where ramp agents were subject to a physical screening, much like ticketed passengers.
But at SeaTac, many ramp agents scraped by. The airport, which is also a local city jurisdiction, made history by passing the nation’s first $15 minimum wage in 2013. But the law had loopholes, and while the cashier at the Sbarro inside the terminal was making $15, some ramp agents at Horizon were reportedly making as much as $3 an hour less. (Alaska Air did not answer specific questions about its compensation practices.) Russell didn’t leave a manifesto. But during his ill-fated flight, without an obvious prompt, he told air-traffic control: “Minimum wage. We’ll chalk it up to that.” He added, “Maybe that will grease the gears a little bit with the higher-ups.”
As Russell’s exploit unfolded, SeaTac was bedlam. The after-incident report describes how Russell’s theft unleashed an “ad hoc, nonstandard notification of key first responders and executive leadership.” It adds that “attempts to ascertain if the plane was actually stolen caused a delay in contacting law enforcement” including what it describes as a “25-minute lag” in notifying the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force of the potential threat to national security.
Air traffic ground to a halt: Seventeen incoming flights were diverted to nearby airports; 75 were delayed; five were canceled. Jon Ostrower is an aviation journalist, a CNN alum who is now editor-in-chief of his own industry publication, The Air Current. He lives within earshot of SeaTac. “I remember getting ready for dinner, and I started to think, it’s really quiet,” he says. “I stepped on the balcony; it was a beautiful evening, absolutely gorgeous. And I just didn’t hear anything.” Ostrower hopped on Twitter, then the open air-traffic-control channels, and soon was listening to Russell banter with air-traffic control. He could hardly fathom what was happening. “Given everything that’s gone on since 9/11,” he says, “you shouldn’t be able to steal a commercial airliner and take off from the ninth-busiest airport in the country.”
With the f-15s trailing at a close distance, Russell set course for the Olympic Mountains. As he soared over the Sound, he grew reflective — and started to say goodbye. “I got a lot of people that care about me, and it’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this,” he said, his voice more sober now. “I would like to apologize to each and every one of them,” adding in a confessional tone: “[I’m] just a broken guy. Got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it till now.”
Soon Russell was buzzing by the second mountain range of his flight: “Man, have you been to the Olympics? These guys are gorgeous. Holy smokes.” NORAD had gathered top decision-makers, including then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis, into what it calls an Operation Noble Eagle Conference. They debated Russell’s fate on a classified network. The F-15s were authorized to “head-butt” — to execute sharp turns in front of the Q400 — and even to drop warning flares to gain Russell’s compliance. “We never actually got to the execution stage,” says Armstrong, “just because he became so erratic in his flight.”
Looping back toward the southern Sound, Russell broke in with an alarming request: “Hey, pilot guy,” he said. “Can this thing do a backflip, ya think?” It was just before 8:30 p.m.; the sky was turning twilight. Russell was coming up with a plan. And it didn’t involve a landing. “Think I’m gonna try to do a barrel roll,” he said, “and if that goes good, then I’ll just nose down and call it a night.”
As Russell steeled himself, regret was again a companion: “The sights went by so fast,” he said. “I was thinking, like, I’m going to have this moment of serenity. You know? I’ll be able to take in all the sights. There’s a lot of pretty stuff,” he added. “But, uh, I think they’re prettier in a different context.”
After several minutes Russell continued: “I feel like I need to be — what do you think? — like 5,000 feet, at least, to be able to pull this barrel roll off?” The amateur video of capturing what happens next defies belief. The 108-foot-long passenger plane soars skyward before suddenly tipping over, clockwise. The Q400 rolls into a diving, upside-down swoop toward earth, nearly coming vertical before flipping over again. As the craft rolls, it never falters, leveling off right above the water of the Puget Sound for a few perilous seconds, before ascending anew into the dusk-pink sky.
An eyewitness report came over the radio from one of the intercepting F-15s, whose pilot referred to the Q400 as “Track of Interest 1” or “TOI1.” His radio transmission sounds somewhat awestruck: “TOI1 just completed a barrel roll.”
The other F-15 pilot responded, sounding professional but incredulous. “Confirm he did a barrel roll?”
“Affirm,” the first pilot said, allowing a chuckle of disbelief. “He cleared the surface of the water by approximately 10 feet.”
The civilian pilot coaching Russell tried to settle the daredevil’s nerves: “All right, Rich, this is Captain Bill. Congratulations, you did that,” he said. “Now let’s try to land that airplane safely and not hurt anybody on the ground.”
“All right!” Russell responded. His voice became wild as he broke in with a darker transmission: “Aw. Dammit. I dunno, man, I dunno! I don’t want to! I was kind of hoping that was going to be it. You know?”
The TSA flatly refuses to discuss the Horizon Air incident and would not release its own civil investigation into the matter. TSA would not arrange any interviews with Rolling Stone, even to discuss the insider threat generally. Administrator Pekoske did not respond to a direct request to discuss the incident, or his department’s stonewalling of it.
Although Russell’s exploit resembled a hijacking, because of a lack of passengers, it was treated as a theft. The FBI took the lead on the investigation. Federal law enforcement would not release the flight data recorder or the cockpit recordings, although the FBI characterized public recordings, grabbed by amateur aviation enthusiasts, as capturing all “significant” communications.
The agency determined Russell had no formal flight training, although he’d searched for instructional videos online and was “familiar with the checklist of actions for starting an airplane.” Les Abend was a pilot for 34 years with American Airlines. He says Russell was uncannily skilled, suggesting he had likely logged a lot of hours on PC flight-simulator software. “If somebody that had no real concept of how to fly that airplane actually got it started and took off, they would have been in the drink,” Abend says. “But this guy knew what he was doing.” In a press conference on August 11th, airline executives were dumbfounded — and in their shock sounded oddly chuffed about Russell’s aerobatics. “There were some maneuvers that were done that were incredible maneuvers with the aircraft,” said Horizon CEO Gary Beck.
At every level — corporate, airport, and governmental — authorities in this case have emphasized that there were no violations of security procedure, no one to blame, and no clear lapses to reform. SeaTac’s Reiter asserted that “what happened on August 10th was not a breakdown of any existing airport protocols.” TSA, summarizing its undisclosed investigation, “found Horizon Air and Sea-Tac International Airport to be in compliance with all security requirements.” In the agency’s only on-the-record comment to Rolling Stone, TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers underscored: “There were no security violations related to this incident.”
But Abend describes the ease with which Russell commandeered a plane as “unfathomable.” Those who knew Russell are still perplexed that there were no effective safeguards in place to prevent his flight: “How is it this was even possible?” asks Schaefers, from Coos Bay, “for an unauthorized person who is not a pilot to get in a plane and fly it off the tarmac?”
The day after Russell’s exploits, an ashen-faced Brad Tilden, then CEO of Alaska Airlines, tried to answer similar questions from reporters: “This is aviation in America,” he said. “The doors to the airplanes
“Given everything that’s gone on since 9/11, you shouldn’t be able to steal an airliner from the ninthbusiest airport in the country,” says an aviation journalist who listened live to Beebo’s flight.
are not keyed like a car. There’s not an ignition key like there would be in a car.” The Q400 was parked inside the airport’s fenced perimeter and presumed safe. “We secure the airfield and then we have the mindset that we have employees that are credentialed,” he said. “So the system that works is we secure the employees that are there.”
Except that the system hadn’t worked. It had just failed spectacularly. Ostrower calls the incident “incredibly, incredibly serious,” and an affront to an airport system oriented to keeping bad actors out, not preventing good actors from breaking bad. “The entire system operates based on trust; this was an incredible violation of that trust,” he says of Russell, who’d previously passed at least two FBI background checks. “I mean, he broke the Maginot Line.”
Russell’s last transmission was concerning and cryptic. His fuel reserves were perilously low. “Not for long,” he said. “I feel like one of my engines is going out or something.” Moments later, the Q400 crashed into woods at the southern end of tiny Ketron Island, just offshore in the Puget Sound, between Tacoma and Olympia. The Q400 tore down trees. Its wings were shorn from the fuselage. The crash sparked a two-acre fire. According to the FBI, Russell died of “multiple traumatic injuries.”
Despite sideslip, consistent with flying with only one engine, the FBI concluded “the final descent to the ground appears to have been intentional,” adding that the plane had nosed farther down “about six seconds prior to the end” of the flight-data record. The crash occurred at 8:46 p.m. — after 73 minutes in flight. The FBI concluded that Russell acted alone, died by suicide, and was not connected to a criminal plot or terrorist ideology. Investigators interviewed family, friends, and colleagues, and combed through Russell’s background for “possible stressors” in his work and personal life. But Matt Scott, the FBI agent, insists “there was never really a clear cut, definitive ‘This is why.’ ” The FBI agent discloses that Russell did text his wife during the incident: “The gist of it is that he’s telling her that she deserved better.”
In quieter times, the theft of a passenger plane in broad daylight, a high-speed chase by F-15 fighters, a barrel roll, and a fiery crash on a sparsely inhabited island would have captivated the national attention. But amid the maelstrom of the Trump presidency, the Friday-night flight was barely news by Monday. Even the loss of a $30 million aircraft was, in the end, easy to forget. When Alaska Air reported the event to shareholders, it assured them: “The loss of the aircraft is a fully insured event with no deductibles.”
The Port of Seattle’s after-incident report offered a suite of safeguards that could help prevent a copycat crime, including offering “mental-health screening and services for the broader population of workers with restricted-area access” and mandating “two-person teams for all functions involving aircraft access.” The authors added that “physical fail-safe measures may be possible, but costs may be considerable.”
Pistole, the former official, says TSA could demand sweeping changes, up to and including locks on the outside doors of airplanes. But the TSA acts less like a regulator than a partner to airport authorities and airlines. New locks could cost billions to install and maintain, and the agency, as Pistole describes it, is reluctant to harm the bottom lines of its partners: “Nobody likes an unfunded mandate,” he says.
Alaska Airlines, Horizon’s sister company, wasted no time in fending off regulatory oversight. Lobbying reports reveal that by August 15th the airline had hired two lobbyists to make its case to DHS, TSA, and Congress on “security issues related to unauthorized operation of a Horizon Air aircraft.”
In September 2018 Senate testimony, Pekoske unflappably assured lawmakers that “there is an awful lot of work being done” within TSA and its partners to confront the insider threat. But he insisted he needed to await the final results of then-ongoing investigations to “determine whether changes are needed.” Pekoske clarified that he would be interested in “lowor no-cost” security technologies.
In reality, TSA continued to drag its feet — making so little progress that the Government Accountability Office called it out in February 2020 for lacking any strategic plan related to the insider threat. That May, TSA produced its Insider Threat Roadmap 2020. Characteristically vacuous, it outlines no concrete reforms, instead emphasizing operational awareness, agility, and the ability of airport partners to “self-police.” Despite the existence of actual keys, a vague “path forward” argues there is “no ‘turn-key’ solution to mitigating insider threat.”
NORAD, by contrast, responded with significant changes. Most important: It empowered its airdefense sectors to act without waiting for approval from higher-ups. “We now allow them to make the decision of whether or not to scramble our fighters,” says Armstrong. “It saves minutes.”
For those who knew russell, his final flight is still met with pain and disbelief. “Something snapped,” says Schaefers, the former Campus Crusade adviser, who listened to the air-traffic recordings. “I heard someone who is very troubled. And I think he knew it. But it was amazing to me as I listened — that sense of not wanting to hurt anyone. And it was still him. The kindness was still there. The good heartness was still there,” Schaefers says. “Obviously, leaving people behind was very harmful,” he adds. “But that’s a different aspect.”
Russell’s family released a statement after his death. “Beebo was a warm, compassionate man,” it said. “He was a faithful husband, a loving man, and a good friend.” They described their “complete shock” at his actions and thanked Jesus for holding the family together in their moment of grief, adding of Russell: “He was right in saying that there are so many people who loved him.” At the time, the family asked for privacy to mourn. The passage of time has not found many of Russell’s family or friends willing to talk to the press. One family member responded to Rolling Stone: “Out of respect for Beebo’s widow, we have agreed as a family to not speak on this.”
For some of Russell’s friends and family, the search for answers about his mental state circles back to his days on the football field. A former high school teammate, Zachary Orr, told a TV interviewer he suspected Russell had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head trauma that can drive extreme mood changes, depression, aggression, and impulsivity. “He played hard,” Orr recalled. Danny Punturo, Russell’s stepbrother, agreed in a 2018 TV interview: “My only hypothetical that kinda fits is possibly injuries from playing football,” he said. “He did suffer some concussions. So in my mind, it was a little bit out of his hands.”
Despite the suicidal circumstances of his flight, Russell has also become, for some, a folk hero. There are long Reddit threads and a Facebook page dedicated to a man they call “Sky King.” People who watched video of Russell’s maneuvers and listened to his radio banter felt connected to his struggle. The anonymous founder of the Richard “Beebo” Russell SkyKing Tribute Page wrote: “It’s been haunting me because I feel I understand him and have experienced the same pain. . . . I feel like I’m trying to mourn someone I never met.” Another devotee writes: “His story hurts me in a way that only losing the closest of friends and family have hurt me.”
To those for whom Russell was a real person, the Sky King treatment is objectionable. “He is certainly no hero,” Schaefers says, “and I don’t think anyone close to him would suggest that.” But Schaefers recognizes why strangers are attracted to the “whole folk-hero thing.” They see a guy who “stole a plane, and barrel rolled, and crashed it, and ‘wasn’t that awesome?’ Like, no. It was not.”
But the truth is that Russell’s legacy is no longer simply a private affair. “One of the fascinating pieces of this,” Ostrower says, “is how quickly it transitioned into myth, legend, and meme. I mean, it was almost instantaneous,” he says, pointing to people who were soon hawking T-shirts and swag with slogans like “Puget Sound Flight Club: Fly It Like You Stole It.” Russell’s exploits are now the stuff of folk songs posted to YouTube, including “Lookin’ for that Orca” and “SkyKing — a song for Richard Russell.” Over the objection of his family, alt-right “groypers” have also claimed Russell as one of their own, seizing on his “Naw, I’m a white guy” line.
In short, a rupture now exists between the intimate tragedy of his short life and the public interpretation of it. “It happens a lot, where a real thing all of a sudden enters this spin cycle,” Ostrower says, and “it becomes this plotline in the realm of the internet.”
The real Beebo Russell was a man in despair who spent his final minutes scared, lightheaded, covered in his own sick, seeking a moment of Zen from thousands of feet in the air that never arrived. He’d set in motion a criminal plot he couldn’t walk back, and ultimately resolved to take his own life rather than return safely to the ground.
The internet Beebo Russell is an archetype: a modern-day Icarus whose dramatic dying act has become a blank slate for others to project meaning upon that informs their own lives. They see a working man, broken down by indifferent bosses — a human cog in the airport machinery who suddenly revolted, stole an airplane, buzzed a volcano, sassed air-traffic controllers, and performed air-show stunts in a final dogged display of the human spirit. As one member of the Sky King community puts it, “His story’s true Americana.”
The flesh-and-blood Russell would almost certainly have gotten a kick out of his internet alter ego, seeing his exploits become fodder for the same kind of dank expressions of edgy and viral humor he’d collected on Pinterest, and hoped to create himself. In September 2017, he boasted on his blog that he’d “Finally learned Photoshop! Meme World here I come!”
In the end, perhaps, it’s a meme that offers some sense of closure for Russell’s legacy. On a Pinterest board called “Boom,” he’d once pinned a “demotivational” poster from Despair.com. It features a photo of a snowboarder careening off a towering, rocky cliff and bold capital letters that spell “Regret.”
“It hurts to admit when you make mistakes,” the smaller text reads. “But when they’re big enough, the pain only lasts a second.”
Suicide is preventable. If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.