Airline Worker Who Stole and Crashed Plane Near Seattle Identified

By Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan is a reporter based in New York covering the Justice Department, courts, and First Amendment.
August 12, 2018 Updated: August 12, 2018

The man who stole an empty plane at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, prompting a security scare and U.S. fighter jets to respond before he crashed it on a sparsely populated island, has been identified, according to local reports.

Richard Russell, 29, a local ground service agent who assisted baggage handlers, used a pushback tractor to maneuver a Bombardier Q400 turboprop aircraft for take-off around 8 p.m. on Aug. 10. Two F-15C alert aircraft were quickly dispatched to intercept the plane, seeking to redirect Russell out over the Pacific Ocean to avoid populated areas, according to the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

The plane then crashed about an hour into the flight in a wooded area on Ketron Island in the southern end of Puget Sound. Russell, who has not been officially identified, was believed to be the only person onboard, according to officials from Alaska Airlines.

“We are still gathering facts, but at this point we understand there was only one person aboard, an employee of Horizon Air, who was operating the aircraft. I want to share how incredibly sad all of us at Alaska are about this incident. Our heart is heavy for the family and friends of the person involved,” Alaska Air Group CEO Brad Tilden said during a press conference on Aug. 11.

Authorities from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Transportation Safety Board are currently investigating the incident, with the FBI leading the investigation.

A recording of a live air-traffic control feed obtained by Seattle Times has revealed the conversation between air traffic controllers and a man referred to as “Rich” and “Richard” before the crash. During the conversation, “Rich” became concerned about how quickly the fuel was burning and said he wanted to “go check out the Olympics.”

“I’m down to 2,100 [pounds], I started at 30 something. … I don’t know what the burnage is like on takeoff, but it burned quite a bit faster than I expected.” Rich said in the recording.

The air-traffic controller sounded calm throughout the whole ordeal as he tried to coax the 29-year-old to land safely.

“There is the runway just off to your right side in about a mile. That’s McChord,” the air-traffic controller said, referring to Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

In response, Rich said, “Those guys will rough me up if I try and land there. I think I might mess something up there too. I wouldn’t want to do that. Oh! They probably have anti-aircraft!”

“No, they don’t have any of that stuff. We’re just trying to find a place for you to land safely,” the air-traffic controller said in response.

“I’m not quite ready to bring it down just yet, but holy smokes, I got to stop looking at the fuel, because it’s going down quick,” Rich replied.

At one point in the conversation, Rich started regretting his decision and apologized to his friends and family.

“I’ve got a lot of people that care about me,” Rich said in the recording. “It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this. 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.”

The local sheriff’s department confirmed that Russell appeared to be suicidal and that the unauthorized flight was not a terrorist incident.

In a video posted on YouTube last December, Russell shows luggage coming off and being loaded onto aircraft, and describes what the life of a ground service agent can entail.

“That means I lift a lot of bags, like a lot of bags, so many bags,” he says, adding, “it allows me to do some pretty cool things, too.”

There are then shots of trips he took, including flying over the Alaskan fjords, visiting lavender fields in France, touring the Yucatán in Mexico, and attending a hurling match in Dublin, Ireland.

“It evens out in the end,” he says to end the video.

Reuters contributed to this report


Janita Kan
Janita Kan is a reporter based in New York covering the Justice Department, courts, and First Amendment.