For reasons authorities don’t fully understand, Richard Russell, a baggage handler at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, stole a 76-seat passenger plane and flew haphazardly for about an hour before crashing into an island in Puget Sound.
The Aug. 10 incident, which ended in Russell’s death, hampered airport operations, raised questions about airport ramp security and captured media attention from around the globe.
But bizarre airline incidents don’t always make headlines. I say this with certainty because one of the most audacious heists in aviation history took place on my watch. Although the heist occurred on a major U.S. carrier — in broad daylight, no less — you’ve probably never heard about it.
On Feb. 17, 1997, I was one of four flight attendants aboard a Boeing 727 preparing to depart Curaçao for Miami. Two flight attendants occupied the jump seat adjacent to the forward door. I sat in the rear jump seat next to another colleague. The plane was packed with sun-kissed passengers strapped in for the three-hour flight.
Moments after pushback, the chaos began. As the plane rolled down the taxiway, it stopped unexpectedly. Our captain emerged from the cockpit and marched down the aisle, past the upturned faces of baffled passengers.
I rose from my jump seat as the captain approached. In a secretive voice, he told me the cargo door indicator light had flashed. He needed to check the outer seal on the cargo door. So he opened the aft emergency door, pulled a lever that lowered the stairs, and a moment later disappeared.
As I turned toward the cabin, a passenger waved his hands in an apparent attempt to get my attention. He was seated near a window exit on the left side of the aircraft. As I approached, the passenger pointed a finger toward the tarmac.
“Just before the plane stopped, we saw a guy run underneath the airplane,” he said.
From the opposite side of the aisle, a man said, “Yeah, and we saw a guy come from under this side of the airplane. He ran off carrying a bag.”
Before I could reach the cockpit to alert the first officer about the security breach, a first-class passenger ran down the aisle. His wide eyes seemed vaguely familiar.
“Someone ran off with my bag,” he said. “It was in the cargo bin. I just looked out the window and saw someone running away with it.”
Suddenly, I remembered him. He worked as an air courier for one of America’s best-known armored security companies. I had spoken to him on previous flights, and I learned that air couriers are responsible for moving large sums of cash. The money is stowed safely in the cargo hold while the courier sits in the cabin.
Moments before our flight departed, an armored truck pulled alongside the aircraft. I watched through an airplane window as a couple of gun-toting officers tossed two large canvas bags into the cargo hold. Hands resting on the butts of their pistols, the officers watched intently as ground crew personnel closed the hatch and our aircraft taxied away.
When the captain ascended the stairs, he looked puzzled. “The cargo door is wide open,” he said.
I told him about the eyewitness accounts. Intrigued, the captain rushed down the stairs again, and I followed him. The courier followed. Sweating beneath a hot Caribbean sun, the three of us stared into an open cargo compartment devoid of that precious cargo.
According to the courier, there were two large money bags — one filled with unmarked bills in small denominations, the other, negotiable bonds and other monetary instruments. The cash bag had disappeared.
We would later learn that a thief had crept onto the tarmac and jogged alongside the aircraft as it rolled toward the taxiway at about 5 mph. The 727 was equipped with two cargo compartments, both on the right side of the aircraft. Both compartments are accessible by anyone of average height, and they were easily opened by pulling the handle out from the fuselage surface.
The thief knew which compartment to open and exactly how to open it. He also knew which bag contained cash.
It was a spectacular rip-off worthy of an action flick.
Our flight didn’t wait for a police investigation. We took off a few minutes behind schedule.
“How much money was in the bag?” I asked as I escorted the courier to his seat.
“Almost $500,000,” he said, adding that the bills were old and shopworn and had been scheduled to be destroyed by the Federal Reserve when they were returned to the U.S.
For the next several weeks, I read updates in Curaçao’s local newspaper and chatted with airline staff on my return trips to the island. As it turned out, three conspirators had been involved in the theft. One was an airline employee. The three were eventually indicted and sent to prison after leaving a conspicuous trail of spending, including the purchase of an automobile.
About five years after the incident, the remaining Boeing 727s in our fleet were retired and replaced with 737s with similar cargo door features, but it’s unlikely a similar airplane heist could occur nowadays, thanks to enhanced airport security.
But then again, I never thought a baggage handler could manage to steal a passenger airplane either.