Seattle Times and Associated Press
SEATAC — A 29-year-old ground-service agent took off in a Horizon Air Q400 turboprop at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Friday night and crashed the plane in south Puget Sound while being trailed by two fighter jets, officials said.
The out-of-service plane was piloted by a Sumner, Pierce County, man and crashed on Ketron Island about 90 minutes later, according to the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office. There appeared to have been no passengers on the 76-seat plane.
The man who stole an empty Horizon Air turboprop plane from Sea-Tac International Airport was Richard Russell, a U.S. official briefed on the matter told The Associated Press.
The official wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Authorities on Saturday said Russell used a machine called a pushback tractor to first maneuver the aircraft so he could board and then take off Friday evening. He was presumably killed about an hour later when the aircraft crashed into a small island southwest of Seattle.
The man could be heard on audio recordings telling air traffic controllers that he is “just a broken guy.” An air traffic controller called the man “Rich,” and tried to convince the man to land the airplane.
Russell went by “Beebo” on social media, and on his Facebook page, which had limited public access. He said he was from Wasilla, Alaska, and 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.
Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, said on Twitter that the man was suicidal and there was no connection to terrorism.
“A joyride gone terribly wrong,” Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor said during a news conference in Steilacoom.
The U.S. Coast Guard sent a 45-foot vessel to the crash scene after witnesses reported seeing a large plume of smoke in the air, Petty Officer Ali Flockerzi said. Video showed fiery flames amidst trees on the island, which is sparsely populated and only accessible by ferry.
Video posted to social media showed the Horizon Air plane doing large loops and other dangerous maneuvers as the sun set. Authorities initially said the man was a mechanic but Alaska Airlines, Horizon Air’s parent, later said he was believed to be a ground service agent employed by Horizon. Those employees direct aircraft for takeoff and gate approach and de-ice planes.
Horizon Air Chief Operating Officer Constance von Muehlen said in a video statement that an airline employee took off in the plane about 8 p.m. and that she believed no other passengers or crew were onboard. Alaska Airlines said it was in a “maintenance position” and not scheduled for a passenger flight.
“Our hearts are with the family of the individual on board, as well as all our Alaska Air and Horizon Air employees,” she said.
Witnesses reported seeing the plane being chased by military aircraft before it crashed. Troyer said F-15 aircraft scrambled out of Portland and were in the air “within a few minutes” and the pilots kept “people on the ground safe.”
Flights from Sea-Tac were temporarily grounded but normal operations resumed about 9:30 p.m. At the Alaska Airlines terminal, it was a hushed Friday night. Lines were modest and most flights were on time.
At one point Russell explained he had put some gas in the plane “to go check out the Olympics … and uh, yeah.”
Then later he began to worry about his fuel.
“I’m down to 2,100 (pounds),” he told the controller. “I started at 30 something. … I don’t know what the burnage is like on takeoff, but it burned quite a bit faster than I expected.”
The air-traffic controller responded calmly, seeming not to want to upset Rich as the conversation continued and he tried to coax Rich into landing somewhere.
“Oh man,” Rich immediately responded, “Those guys will rough me up if I try and land there. I think I might mess something up there too. I wouldn’t want to do that. They probably have anti-aircraft.”
“They don’t have any of that stuff,” the air traffic controller said. “We’re just trying to find a place for you to land safely.”
“I’m not quite ready to bring it down just yet,” Rich said. “But holy smokes, I got to stop looking at the fuel because it’s going down quick.”
“Could you start a left turn and we’ll take you down to the southeast, please,” the air-traffic controller then asked.
“This is probably jail time for life, huh?” said Rich. “I would hope it is for a guy like me.”
“Oh, Richard,” said the controller, “We’re not going to worry or think about that. But could you start a left turn please?”
At another point, Rich said, “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.”
An exchange between Rich and the controller not long before the plane crashed, perhaps the final exchange, was recorded by aviation journalist Jon Ostrower at 8:47 p.m. and was posted to his Air Current web site.
“I feel like one of my engines is going out or something,” Rich says.
“OK, Rich,” the controller responded, again very calmly. “If you could, you just want to keep that plane right over the water. Keep the aircraft nice and low.”
A witness on the ground, Bryan Sichley, said he was at Chambers Bay in Tacoma and saw a plane nose dive after being chased by two fighter jets. The Federal Aviation Administration reported about 9:30 p.m. that a plane crashed.
Royal King of Mukilteo was photographing a wedding at Lake Steilacoom when he saw a low-flying plane and two F-15 fighter jets trailing it. He knew something was off, he said Friday night.
He then saw the two jets come back around toward him, but not the plane. He didn’t hear the crash, but saw smoke.
“It was unfathomable, it was something out of a movie,” he said. “The smoke lingered. You could still hear the F-15s, which were flying low.”
He said he was shaken up by what he saw, and what he heard afterward.
“That’s somebody’s son or husband or daughter. This is a tragedy,” he said.
Late Friday night, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a statement regarding the stolen plane:
“There are still a lot of unknowns surrounding tonight’s tragic incident of a stolen Horizon Airline plane from Sea-Tac Airport. The responding fighter pilots flew alongside the aircraft and were ready to do whatever was needed to protect us, but in the end the man flying the stolen plane crashed on Ketron Island. I want to thank the Air National Guard from Washington and Oregon for scrambling jets to keep Washingtonians safe. Those pilots are trained for moments like tonight and showed they are ready and capable.”