On Friday, 29-year-old Richard Russell, a ground employee at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, managed to sneak onto an empty commercial aircraft and took it for an hour-long joyride that ended in a fatal fiery crash near the Puget Sound. Now investigators are working to piece together how an airline employee responsible for baggage could steal and operate an aircraft, and what would drive someone to commit such a bizarre heist.
According to CNBC, Russell had worked for Horizon Air for more than three years de-icing, towing, and loading luggage onto planes, and had finished up his shift on Friday before stealing the 76-person passenger jet. After using a tractor to maneuver the plane, Russell, who authorities say didn't have a pilot's license or any formal training, taxied the plane onto the runway and just took off.
Once in the air, he caught attention from onlookers in the area by pulling stunts like this:
"There were some maneuvers that were done that were incredible maneuvers," Horizon Air CEO Gary Beck said at a press conference on Saturday. "I don't know how he achieved the experience that he did."
On Saturday, the Pierce County Sheriff's Department described Russell as "suicidal," and authorities have since released audio of the conversations Russell had inside the cockpit with air traffic controllers, shedding a bit more light into what was going through his mind at the time. In the recording, Russell explains that he doesn't want to hurt anyone, but rambles on about doing "barrel rolls," "sweet nothings," learning to fly from "video games," getting possible prison time or a job as a pilot for the stunt, seeing the orca that had been carrying her dead calf around, and hoping to glean a "moment of serenity" before taking the plane "nose down" to "call it a night."
“I got a lot of people that care about me, and it’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this," Russell says in the recording. "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."
About an hour after he took off, Russell crashed the plane into a small island by the Puget Sound, where no one else was injured, and no structures were destroyed. Along with those in-flight recordings, the FBI has since recovered the black box and human remains from the crash site.
The incident raises terrifying security questions, and an aviation expert writing for CNN said that it's "shockingly easy" for an airline employee to steal a plane. "Almost all" airline personnel have access to airplanes themselves, and Russell was no exception. Airplane doors aren't typically locked, CNN reports, because you have to be a vetted employee with the proper security codes to even reach the door.
"They don’t necessarily use a key, so there’s switches that they use to start the aircraft," Debra Eckrote, chief of the northwest regional office of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Saturday. "So if the person has basic understanding—from what I understand he was support personnel, ground personnel—they probably do have at least a basic understanding on how to start the aircraft."
According to the New York Times, the FBI in Seattle is now leading an investigation into exactly what happened on Friday and will hopefully shed some light on how airports around the country can avoid a similar situation, one that—as Russell's flight proved—could put a lot of innocent people in danger.
"We are going to be thorough, which means taking the time needed to scour the area, delve into the background of the individual believed responsible, and review every aspect of this incident with all appropriate public and private partners," the FBI said in a statement.
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