Blithe tone belied desperate actions of Seattle plane thief

Associated Press


He cracked jokes, complimented the professional demeanor of an air-traffic controller and apologized for making a fuss.

But the friendly tone of a 29-year-old airport worker who stole a commercial plane Friday night, performing acrobatic stunts before the fatal plunge into a thick island forest, belied his desperate actions.

“I think I’m going to try to do a barrel roll, and if that goes good, I’ll go nose down and call it a night,” Richard Russell said from the cockpit, according to a recording of his conversation with the controller.

The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed Sunday that Russell had died in the fiery wreckage, but whether the crash was deliberate or accidental was one of several topics remaining for investigators.

Others include how, nearly 17 years after the Sept. 11 attack, someone can simply take a passenger plane from a major U.S. airport without authorization.

Tragic as Russell’s death was, he could have inflicted vastly more damage. Potential targets included tens of thousands of fans at Safeco Field, about 12 miles away, for a sold-out Pearl Jam concert.

“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,” Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Airlines, told a news conference Saturday.

The plane was a Bombardier Q400, a turboprop that seats 76, owned by Horizon Air, part of Alaska Airlines. It was parked at a cargo and maintenance area after arriving from Victoria, British Columbia, earlier in the day.

Russell, a 31/2-year Horizon employee, worked as a ground service agent. His responsibilities included towing and pushing aircraft for takeoff and gate approach, de-icing them and handling baggage.

Authorities said he used a tractor to rotate the plane 180 degrees, positioning it so he could taxi toward a runway. They said it’s not clear whether he had ever taken flight lessons or used flight simulators, or where he gained the skills to take off. The plane didn’t require a key, but it did require buttons and switches to be activated in a particular order.

His 75-minute flight took him south and west, toward the Olympic Mountains. As a flight controller tried to persuade him to land, he wondered aloud about whether he had enough fuel to make it to the Olympics, talked of the beautiful view and said he had a lot of people who cared about him, apologizing for what he was doing.

He told the controller he “wasn’t really planning on landing” the aircraft, and he described himself as “just a broken guy.”

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