FBI seeks motive after airline worker steals plane, crashes it

This frame grab taken from footage filmed by bystander John Wauldron, shows an empty passenger airplane stolen from the Seattle-Tacoma airport. — AFP photo

SEATTLE: Federal authorities were seeking to learn what drove an airline worker to steal an empty airplane from Seattle’s airport in a security scare that caused the scrambling of US fighter jets and ended when the plane crashed.

A Horizon Air ground service agent got into a Bombardier Q400 turboprop aircraft on Friday night in a maintenance area at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and took off, Horizon sister carrier Alaska Airlines said.

He flew for about one hour, often erratically with attempts at aerial stunts, before crashing onto sparsely populated Ketron Island in Puget Sound, some 25 miles to the southwest.

Richard Russell

The 29-year-old man was believed to have been killed in the crash. Relatives and co-workers identified the man as Richard Russell of Sumner, Washington, who also went by the name Beebo.

“He was a faithful husband, a loving son, and a good friend. This is a complete shock to us. We are devastated by these events and Jesus is truly the only one holding this family together right now,” the Russell family said in a statement

Russell was not known to have had a pilot’s licence, Horizon Air chief executive Gary Beck said at a news conference, and it was not clear how he was able to take off and fly as he did.

“There were some manoeuvres that were done that were incredible manoeuvres with the aircraft. Commercial aircraft are complex machines. They’re not as easy to fly as, say, a Cessna 150, so I don’t know how he achieved the experience that he did,” Beck said.

In partial recordings of Russell’s conversations with air traffic controllers that were published online by Broadcastify.com, he said he was sorry to disappoint people who cared about him and described himself as a ‘broken guy.’

“Got a few screws loose, I guess,” Russell is heard saying in the recording. “Never really knew it until now.” He also admired the sunset, complained of lightheadedness, and asked whether he would go to prison if he landed safely.

He had worked for Horizon Air for 3-1/2 years and had clearance to tow planes, Alaska Airlines chief executive Brad Tilden said at the news conference.

Two F-15 fighter jets took to the air from a base in Portland, Oregon, and were on the scene within minutes. The jets were armed but did not open fire, North American Aerospace Defense Command spokesman Cameron Hillier said by phone. — Reuters

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