Opinion: Ground worker steals Horizon Air’s Q400. But how?
Richard Russell, age 29, a ground service agent employed by Horizon Air stole a company owned Bombardier Q400, a 76 passenger regional twin engine turboprop, at SeaTac Airport Friday, August 10th, at 7:32 PM, PDT. Russell at the controls, with no one else on board, flew south of the airport, over Puget Sound, flew several acrobatic maneuvers during his 75 minutes aloft, before crashing into Ketron Island, approximately 30 miles south of SeaTac Airport, into a wooded uninhabited part of the island.
The theft began in Cargo Area 1, at the NE corner of the airport, with only a few people in the area. The plane was not scheduled to be used that night. Russell used an aircraft tug to turn the Q400 180 degrees around to face the runways, he then taxied out and turned onto runway 16C, at the north end of the airport. As Russell headed for the active runway, an Alaskan Airline pilot holding on the main taxiway that was behind a Delta jet, radioed the tower that a Q400 crossed very close to the Delta plane that was #1, for takeoff. The tower then began contact with Russell asking “who is that aircraft on 16C?” Since no other planes were holding on the runway for takeoff, so Russell immediately began his takeoff roll.
After departing SeaTac, the Seattle Approach controller contacted Russell and advised him “the better option, “I think is to land it”, suggesting McChord Air Force Base, “on your right”, approximately a mile away, “that’s probably the best place to go, or even land on the water”. Russell told the controller that he could not land at McCord as “those guys would rough me up, and they probably got anti-aircraft there”. After Russell was airborne, the controller was calm and patient as he tried to keep him away from populated areas and arriving planes.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command, scrambled two armed F-15C fighters and were and in the air within minutes of the theft, flying at supersonic speeds from their Portland Air Force base to intercept the aircraft. One of the fighter pilots suggested to Russell to divert the aircraft toward the Pacific Ocean while maintaining radio communication with controllers and Russell. The jets flew close enough to make visual contact, he said. The fighter pilots did not sense a need to shoot down the plane, as Russell staid over Puget Sound and away from populated areas.
The controller frequently asked Russell to make turns to stay in radio range because he wanted to continue to talk to him. “If you could, you just want to keep that plane right over the water. Keep the aircraft nice and low”. Russell stated that “I would like to apologize to each and every one. Just a broken guy.......got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it until now.” He told the controller that I’m not quite ready to bring it down now”, he said “I don’t wanna hurt no one”. He said, “Ah, dammit. I don’t want to. I was kind of hoping that was going to be it.” Among his aerial acrobatics, Russell flew nearly straight up into a vertical climb, briefly leveled out, put the plane into a steep nose dive, plunged toward the water, then he pulled out of the descent, just feet from the water. “Think I’m gonna try to do a barrel roll and if that goes good, I’m just going to nose down and call it a night,” he said toward the end of the recorded audio. When Russell told the controller “I’m just going to nose down and call it a night”; in my opinion, Russell had decided to put the plane in a steep dive and crash, as he had completed all the aerobatic maneuvers he wanted to perform. Russell never mentioned to the controller he was actually planed a landing. Horizon Airline officials are unsure how Russell learned to operate a plane, much less perform flying stunts. There are many switches and levers to even start a plane, Horizon Air CEO Gary Beck told reporters at a news conference Saturday (August 11th). "We don’t know how he learned to do that." Beck added, that “the man did perform some "incredible" maneuvers”.
Without warning, after approximately 75 minutes of flying, Russell ended his life by crashing into the southern, uninhabited southern tip of Ketron Island, about 30 miles south of SeaTac Airport, just a few miles from his family home in Steilacoom. The Island only has four homes on it, up on the northern end of the island.
The crash caused a significant fire in the woods.
Here’s how it’s believed that Russell, who did not have a pilot's license or having any formal pilot training, was able to take off, flying over the water around the Puget Sound’s irregular coastline, and perform many aerial acrobatics:
Russell received basic training to allow him to tow an aircraft around the airport. That gave him a familiarity with the Q400’s flight deck, and because aircraft under tow are required to contact ramp or ground controllers, Russell likely understood basic radio procedures. But that did not prepare him to fly away in the Horizon Air plane. Alaska Air Group (parent company of Horizon Air) CEO Brad Tilden said at a news conference, "There were some maneuvers performed by Russell that were incredible”.
Russell told the controller “I've played video games, so I know what I'm doing" he said. "Everything's peachy keen”. Can video games really provide enough training? Charlie Hall a senior reporter with Polygon, a gaming news website, noted that “They're no longer video games, they require developing specialized expertise, and require a lot of practice”. Jeff Price, an aviation consultant and former ramp worker, said he could have gotten some skills on the job from watching others, and flight simulator software may have helped him familiarize himself with how the plane works. Tutorials are also available online. "It's not a top secret process, you can watch other folks. It's not that hard to gather up a lot of this information."
Appears Russell’s use of the internet enabled him to carry out this tragic flight.
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