SEATTLE (AP) — U.S. investigators are working to find out how an airline employee stole an empty commercial airplane from the main airport serving Seattle and crashed into a small island after being chased by military jets.
The man was killed, but no one else was hurt. Here’s some more details on the bizarre incident:
A Horizon Airlines ground agent stole a Horizon Air Q400, a turboprop plane that seats 76 people, from Sea-Tac International Airport on Friday night. For more than an hour, Richard Russell, 29, flew over the Seattle metro area and Puget Sound, doing large loops and other dangerous maneuvers while talking with air traffic controllers. Russell was killed when the plane crashed on Ketron Island, southwest of Tacoma.
WHO WAS THE PILOT?
Officials said Russell was a 3 ½-year employee of Horizon Airlines, which is part of Alaska Air Group and flies shorter routes throughout the U.S. West. As a ground agent who directs aircraft for takeoff and gate approach and handles baggage, he had clearance to be among aircraft, but authorities don’t believe he was a licensed pilot.
Russell went by “Beebo” on social media. He said he was from Wasilla, Alaska, lived in Sumner, Washington, and was married in 2012. In a humorous YouTube video he posted last year, he talked about his job and included videos and photos of his various travels.
Coaches at Wasilla High School in Alaska, where Russell was a football player, wrestler and discus thrower, told the Anchorage Daily News that they are shocked at the news. Track and field coach Gary Howell said he was “absolutely the kind of kid you want on your team.”
HOW DID AUTHORITIES RESPOND?
Two military F-15C aircraft were scrambled from Portland, Oregon, and pursued the plane, with Russell’s motive unclear and his ability to inflict damage on the ground. But authorities say they didn’t fire on it before it crashed. Air traffic controllers tried to persuade Russell to attempt to land.
“There is a runway just off to your right side in about a mile,” a 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,” Russell responded. Later he 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.”
WHAT ARE INVESTIGATORS DOING?
The FBI and other agencies are trying to determine what happened, including how Russell knew how to take off in the plane that required buttons and switches to be activated in a particular order.
Authorities say Russell used a machine called a pushback tractor to first maneuver the aircraft, which was in a maintenance area. Officials from Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air said they are working with authorities to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again.
Officials at Sea-Tac airport planned to meet Monday with airlines to discuss security protocols. The bizarre incident points to what experts say is one of the biggest potential perils for commercial air travel: airline or airport employees causing mayhem.
Investigators have recovered and are analyzing the flight data recorder and components of the cockpit voice recorder.
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