He had all the proper security credentials. He had been working his shift and was believed to still be in uniform. The baggage handler didn’t seem out of place at all — until he was taxiing down the runway and taking off in a stolen passenger plane.
Richard Russell sparked a combination of amazement and fear as he flew — alone — a 76-seat Horizon Air Q400 plane for more than an hour before it crashed on a wooded area on Ketron Island south of Seattle.
He did a barrel roll. A daring swoop. Officials said they didn’t believe he even had a pilot’s license.
“Incredible,” Horizon Air President and Chief Executive Gary Beck said Saturday.
But investigators are still trying to understand why the man nicknamed “Beebo” decided to take the plane for a what appeared to be joy ride Friday evening from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Mike Matthews, a family friend, read a statement on behalf of Russell’s family Saturday night that said relatives were still trying to process what happened.
“We are stunned and heartbroken,” he said. “It may seem difficult for those watching at home to believe, but Beebo was a warm, compassionate man. It is impossible to encompass who he was in a press release. He was a faithful husband, a loving son, and a good friend.”
The statement also said: “As the voice recording show, Beebo’s intent was not to harm anyone and he was right in saying that there are so many people who loved him.”
The act also reignited discussions about airport and aviation security, with Alaska Airlines Chairman and Chief Executive Brad Tilden repeating several times Saturday that passenger and employee safety was — and is — the company’s primary concern. Horizon Air is a subsidiary of Alaska Air Group.
The FBI special agent in charge in Washington state, Jay Tabb, said Saturday that dozens of investigators were combing the crash site, where it is believed the man died. Officials at the Pierce County medical examiner’s office confirmed Sunday they have Russell’s body. He was 28.
“We are diligently investigating this matter,” Tabb said. “We will get to the bottom of it.”
It is believed the man was the only one in the plane, but Tabb said that investigators hadn’t confirmed that at the crash site. Officials with Horizon Air said the plane had not been scheduled to fly and was parked at a cargo parking area at the airport.
The man was authorized to tow aircraft. Officials said he rotated the plane 180 degrees, using a push-back tractor to position it for takeoff at 7:32 p.m.
During the flight the renegade pilot bantered erratically with air traffic controllers, who pleaded with him to land the plane, according to officials and dispatch. Officials said they lost contact with him at 8:47 p.m.
“This is probably jail time for life, huh?” said the man, according to dispatch audio reviewed by the Seattle Times. “I would hope it is for a guy like me.”
“Oh, Richard,” said an air traffic controller, “We’re not going to worry or think about that. But could you start a left turn, please?”
Paul Rinaldi, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn., on Saturday praised the controllers who dealt with the man in the air.
In a statement, Rinaldi said of one of the controllers: “The recordings of the incident display his exceptional professionalism and his calm and poised dedication to the task at hand that is a hallmark of our air traffic controller workforce nationwide.”
Michael Ehl, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s director of operations, said 75 flights were delayed, nine flights were diverted to other airports and five flights were canceled due to the incident.
Ehl said the man who took the plane was authorized to be in the vicinity of the parked aircraft.
“He was totally credentialed,” Ehl said. “He had access to that area legitimately.”
Jeff Price, professor of aviation at Metropolitan State University in Denver, said the incident would probably be a wake-up call for closer scrutiny and tighter security at airports and among airlines, and would require reworking the way employees report “pre-incident behaviors” that might point to a problem.
Price said that as more time has passed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, security at airports and among airlines and the Transportation Security Administration has gotten more lax. He noted reports that have shown dangerous objects clearing security systems. The Horizon plane theft, he said, would probably force the airline industry to take a closer look at screening and identifying employees within the secure area that might be a danger.
Price said the airlines and airplane manufacturers may also look at adding layers of security to keep anyone but the flight crew from taking off in a specific plane. Special encrypted passcodes could be a part of that process, he said.
But he also said Friday’s heist of the aircraft “falls low on the risk scale” and that the threat of a rogue pilot crashing a plane had always been present. This incident, he said, would probably make it more difficult for those who might have similar thoughts or plans about taking a plane.
“That’s always been a risk,” Price said. “But now they’ll find it harder to navigate the process because now people will be watching for it. It’s possible for a terrorist to become a pilot, but there’s a lot of water between that and what happened in Seattle.”
At one point, the pilot said: “I’m gonna land it, in a safe kind of manner. I think I’m gonna try to do a barrel roll, and if that goes good, I’m just gonna nose down and call it a night.”
Two F-15 fighter jets were scrambled from Portland, Ore., during the unauthorized flight. The fighter jets were traveling so quickly that at least one of them broke the sound barrier, setting off a sonic boom that some people in the vicinity mistook for an explosion.
Video posted by witnesses on social media showed the plane making a barrel roll over what appears to be Puget Sound, with some people crying out in terror as the plane exited the roll in a dive toward the water, before barely pulling up in time and flying away.
“Oh, my God! Oh, my God! He’s OK? He’s OK,” one woman said in a video posted on Facebook, which showed at least one of the military jets in pursuit.
Debra Eckrote, Western Pacific regional chief of the NTSB, said agents were looking for flight data recorders and the remains of the airline employee.
The cockpit voice recorder could prove useful, Eckrote said. “We already have the air traffic and pilot communications, but he might have been talking to himself in the cockpit,” she said.
The plane went down in a heavily forested area with thick underbrush. First responders cleared a path to the wreckage Friday night, she said. A fire sparked by the crash was out by daylight.
The plane did not hit any structures, according to an Alaska Airlines statement. Ketron Island is primarily undeveloped, with a few homes toward the north end of the island, according to a Pierce County website.
Whether the crash was intentional is among the many questions facing investigators. According to the dispatch audio reviewed by the Seattle Times, the man told air traffic controllers: “I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this. I would like to apologize to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy; got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it, until now.”
Jimmy Thomson, deputy editor of Canadian investigative environmental news outlet the Narwhal, compiled portions of the air traffic recording. In one clip, the man says he wouldn’t know how to land the plane. “I wasn’t really planning on landing it,” he says.
On a blog belonging to Russell, created last year for a communications class at Washington State University, he wrote that he lives in Sumner with his wife, Hannah. He said he was born in Key West, Fla., and moved to Wasilla, Alaska, at age 7.
Russell said he and his wife ran a bakery for three years in Oregon before moving to Washington in 2015 to be near her family. He said he got the job at Horizon so he could travel to Alaska more easily to visit his family.
In one post, he says he never imagined himself as a ground services agent because it seemed like miserable work. “I always felt bad for the guys and gals who handled luggage,” he wrote.
But later, he said, he was glad to have been turned down after an interview for a customer service agent position. “I’ve since learned that angry people can be much more exhausting than heavy bags,” he wrote.
Sunday, 1 p.m.: This story has been updated with a statement from Russell’s family.
8:20 p.m.: This article has been updated with comments from security experts and biographical details on the man identified in multiple media reports as the one who piloted the stolen plane.
This article was originally published at 2:45 p.m.