Mon, Aug 13, 2018 - Page 5 News List

Authorities probe plane theft, crash

SEATTLE SHOCKER:The man who stole a Horizon Airlines plane and flew it for about an hour before crashing into an island was named as Richard Russell

AP, OLYMPIA, Washington

Richard Russell, a ground service agent at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, is pictured in an undated selfie taken from social media.

Photo: AFP

Investigators are piecing together how an airline ground agent stole an empty commercial airplane, took off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and crashed into a small island in the Puget Sound after being chased by military jets that were quickly scrambled to intercept the aircraft.

Officials on Saturday said that the man was a 3.5-year Horizon Airlines employee and had clearance to be among aircraft, but that to their knowledge, he was not a licensed pilot.

The 29-year-old used a machine called a pushback tractor to first maneuver the aircraft, which was in a maintenance area, so he could board and then take off on Friday evening, authorities said.

A US official briefed on the matter told reporters that the man was Richard Russell.

The official was not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Video showed the Horizon Air Q400, a turboprop plane that seats 76 people, doing large loops and other dangerous maneuvers as the sun set on Puget Sound.

Two F-15C fighters were scrambled from Portland, Oregon, and pursued the plane, but authorities say they did not fire on it before it crashed on tiny Ketron Island, southwest of Tacoma, Washington.

“It is highly fragmented,” Debra Eckrote, the Western Pacific regional chief for the US National Transportation Safety Board, said of the plane. “The wings are off, the fuselage is, I think, kind of positioned upside down.”

Investigators expected to be able to recover both the cockpit voice recorder and the event data recorder from the plane.

Russell is presumed to have died in the crash.

He could be heard on audio recordings telling air traffic controllers that he is “just a broken guy.”

An air traffic controller tried to convince him to land the airplane.

“There is a runway just off to your right side in about a mile [1.6km],” the controller says, referring to an airfield at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

“Oh man. Those guys will rough me up if I try and land there,” the man responded, later adding: “This is probably jail time for life, huh?”

Later the man said: “I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this... Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess.”

Russell’s family said in a statement that they are stunned and heartbroken.

They referenced the recordings of him talking to air traffic controllers and said and that it was clear Russell, who went by the nickname “Beebo,” did not intend to harm anyone and “he was right in saying that there are so many people who loved him.”

Horizon Air is part of Alaska Air Group and flies shorter routes throughout the US West.

At a news conference at the Seattle airport, officials from Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air said that they are still working with authorities as they investigate what happened.

“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,” Alaska Airlines chief executive officer Brad Tilden said.

The bizarre incident involving a worker who authorities said was suicidal points to one of the biggest potential perils for commercial air travel: airline or airport employees causing mayhem.

“The greatest threat we have to aviation is the insider threat,” Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent and transportation security expert, told reporters. “Here we have an employee who was vetted to the level to have access to the aircraft and had a skillset proficient enough to take off with that plane.”

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