It was all over in about an hour. But the consequences of the unauthorized flight Friday evening are monumental, aviation experts and investigators said.
The man — a ground service agent identified as Richard B. Russell, according to a law enforcement official — exposed a troubling reality of airport security in the post-9/11 era. While many visible aspects of commercial flight that affect the routines of passengers have been hardened, parts of the system that are behind the scenes, but just as important to public safety as cockpit doors and screening machines, remain vulnerable.
Russell took off around 7:30 p.m., according to authorities. He chatted sometimes calmly and sometimes in a frenzied stream of consciousness with air traffic controllers who tried to guide him to a safe landing, as jets from the Air National Guards of Washington and Oregon flew alongside him, ready to take action. The plane came down in a fiery crash on Ketron Island, about 30 miles from the airport. No one else was believed to be on board, and officials confirmed Russell was killed.
It was not immediately clear how Russell, who worked for Horizon Air, a subsidiary of Alaska Airlines, had managed to take off in the plane. But Debra Eckrote, chief of the northwest regional office of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Saturday that it was conceivable that a ground service agent would be able to start an airplane.
“They don’t necessarily use a key, so there’s switches that they use to start the aircraft,” she said. “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.”
At a news conference Saturday, the chief executive of Horizon Air Industries, Gary Beck, said Russell did not have a pilot’s license.
“Commercial aircrafts are complex machines,” Beck added. “I don’t know how he achieved the experience he did.”
Alaska Airlines officials said Russell had worked for Horizon for 3 1/2 years, and was responsible for handling luggage and cargo and for towing aircraft. He had worked his shift on Friday.
“I want to share how incredibly sad all of us at Alaska are about this incident,” said Brad Tilden, chief executive of Alaska Air Group, which owns Horizon Air. “Our heart is heavy for the family and friends of the person involved.”
Russell had cleared all the necessary background checks and was meant to be “on the secure side” of the airport, where the plane was, Tilden said. The plane was not scheduled for a flight when Russell commandeered it.
In recordings of Russell’s remarkable conversation with air traffic controllers he speaks admiringly of the Olympic Mountains at sunset, complains of lightheadedness and muses about potential prison time if he were to land the plane safely.
At one point, an air traffic controller asked if Russell felt comfortable flying.
“It’s blast, man,” Russell said. “I played video games before so, you know, I know what I’m doing a little bit.”
At times, Russell was contrite.
“Man, I’m sorry about this. I hope this doesn’t ruin your day,” he said to the controller, adding that he was grateful to be kept away from other aircraft. “I’m glad you’re not, you know, screwing up everyone else’s day on account of me.”
He said he hoped to have a “moment of serenity” in the air but lamented that the sights “went by so fast.”
Videos taken by onlookers during Russell’s flight showed the plane doing deep dives, broad loops and at least one upside-down roll. At the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, thousands of passengers in the terminal or left sitting in planes on the tarmac were delayed.
“I got a lot of people that care about me and it’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this,” Russell could be heard saying. “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 episode raised questions about the little-known details of life on the tarmac, in the loading, fueling and cleaning operations of airplanes — unglamorous work that is critical to public safety but often poorly paid.
Tim Orr, who also works at the Seattle-Tacoma airport, and who said he had known Russell since they were both 12, said his friend had been frustrated that his airport job did not pay the $15 minimum wage that many other airport workers receive, and had talked about leaving to do something else. But Russell, his friend said, also loved the travel opportunities that came with working for an airline.
Russell and his wife were active church members, Orr said, “so he doesn’t really fit the bill of someone who would steal an airplane.”
“Funniest person in the room,” he added. “Nicest person in the room.”
Airplane theft, as opposed to hijacking — taking over control in flight, with passengers abroad — is actually not uncommon, though it usually involves private aircraft, not commercial airliners. Colton Harris-Moore, nicknamed the Barefoot Bandit, was sentenced in 2011 for stealing small planes, which he had learned to fly himself as a teenager after reading flight manuals. Drug trade across the United States-Mexico border often happens in stolen planes.
The FBI field office in Seattle, which is leading the investigation, said it would cast a wide net in finding out what happened and why. “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 office said in a statement.
Rick Christenson, an operational supervisor with Horizon, said that while he had only met Russell in passing between shifts, “I do remember him as a nice quiet young man.” He added Russell’s ability to fly might have come from “flight simulator games.”
In a video that appears to have been posted by Russell in December, he introduced himself as a ground service agent. “That means I lift a lot of bags,” he said. “Like, a lot of bags. So many bags.”
But “it allows me to do some pretty cool things, too,” he added, segueing to footage of a flight tour over Ketchikan, Alaska, followed by images of several countries including France, Ireland and Mexico.
Most importantly, he concluded, “I get to visit those I love most.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Kirk Johnson, Jacey Fortin and Christina Caron © 2018 The New York Times