The family of a man who authorities say stole an airplane from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and later crashed it, have said he was a faithful husband, loving son and good friend.
In a statement, the family said 29-year-old Richard Russell was warm, kind and gentle and that the incident has come as a complete shock, leaving them stunned and heartbroken.
They referenced the recordings of him talking to air traffic controllers and said that it’s clear Russell didn’t intend to harm anyone and “he was right in saying that there are so many people who loved him.”
Russell, who is presumed dead, said on social media he 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.
“I lift a lot of bags. Like a lot of bags. So many bags,” he said.
Meanwhile, investigators are piecing together how he stole an empty commercial airplane, took off from Sea-Tac International Airport and 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 Russell was a 3.5-year Horizon Airlines employee and had clearance to be among aircraft, but that to their knowledge, he wasn’t a licensed pilot.
Russell used a machine called a pushback tractor to first maneuver the aircraft, which was in a maintenance area, so he could board and then take off Friday evening, authorities said.
Video showed the Horizon Air Q400, a turboprop plane that seats 76 people, doing large loops and other dangerous maneuvers as the sun set on Puget Sound.
Some dude stole a plane from #Seatac (Allegedly), did a loop-the-loop, ALMOST crashed into #ChambersBay, then crossed in front of our party, chased by fighter jets and subsequently crashed. Weird times. pic.twitter.com/Ra4LcIhwfU
— bmbdgty (@drbmbdgty) August 11, 2018
Two F-15C aircraft were scrambled from Portland and pursued the plane but authorities say they didn’t fire on it before it crashed on tiny Ketron Island, southwest of Tacoma, Washington. Video showed fiery flames amid trees on the island, which is sparsely populated and only accessible by ferry. No structures on the ground were damaged by the plane, which sparked a small wildfire.
“It is highly fragmented,” Debra Eckrote, the Western Pacific regional chief for the National Transportation Safety Board, said of the plane. “The wings are off, the fuselage is, I think, kind of positioned upside down.”
Investigators expect they will be able to recover both the cockpit voice recorder and the event data recorder from the plane.
Russell could be heard on audio recordings telling air traffic controllers that he is “just a broken guy.”
An air traffic controller tried to convince him to land the airplane.
“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,” he responded, later adding “This is probably jail time for life, huh?”
Later Russell 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.”
Horizon Air is part of Alaska Air Group and flies shorter routes throughout the US West. The Q400 is a turboprop aircraft with 76 seats.
— CNN (@CNN) August 12, 2018
At a news conference in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, officials from Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air said that they are still 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 Russell, 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,” Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent and transportation security expert, told the AP. “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.”
Ground service agents direct aircraft for takeoff and gate approach and de-ice planes, as well as handle baggage.
There was no connection to terrorism, said Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the sheriff’s department.
Coaches at Wasilla High School in Alaska, where Russell was a football player, wrestler and discus thrower, told the Anchorage Daily News 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.”
“He had that energy, that vibrance,” Howell said. “He was that kid you high-five in the hallway even if you don’t know him.”
The Times of Israel covers one of the most complicated, and contentious, parts of the world. Determined to keep readers fully informed and enable them to form and flesh out their own opinions, The Times of Israel has gradually established itself as the leading source of independent and fair-minded journalism on Israel, the region and the Jewish world.
We've achieved this by investing ever-greater resources in our journalism while keeping all of the content on our site free.
Unlike many other news sites, we have not put up a paywall. But we would like to invite readers who can afford to do so, and for whom The Times of Israel has become important, to help support our journalism by joining The Times of Israel Community. Join now and for as little as $6 a month you can both help ensure our ongoing investment in quality journalism, and enjoy special status and benefits as a Times of Israel Community member.