'Incredible maneuvers' by airline ground agent who stole plane baffles employer. His only training appears to be 'video games.'

Key Points
  • Airline executives say they are not sure whether Richard Russell, who stole a Q400 twin-engine turboprop from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, had formal flight training.
  • The NTSB is reviewing the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder.
'Incredible maneuvers' by airline ground agent who stole plane baffles employer
Airline ground agent who stole plane baffles employer

Shortly after he stole an airplane from his employer, Horizon Air ground service agent Richard Russell barreled down a runway, took off and flew the two-engine turboprop above the Puget Sound, flying in dramatic loops before crashing in a wooded area of a nearby island.

Russell died in Friday night's crash.

Airline executives said they aren't sure whether the 29-year-old, who was hired by the Alaska Air Group's regional arm Horizon Air in February 2015, had formal flight training.

Russell didn't appear to have a pilot's license, Horizon Air CEO Gary Beck said in news conference over the weekend. The grounds crew worker told air traffic control agents that he played some video games.

"There were some maneuvers that were done that were incredible maneuvers," Beck said. "I don't know how he achieved the experience that he did."

Beck said "commercial aircraft are complex machines" and not as easy to fly as a small plane such as a Cessna 150. Alaska Air CEO Brad Tilden said the airline did not know if Russell had any training.

The incident at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has exposed blind spots in aviation security and safety, and challenges in screening employees and addressing potential mental health problems. The National Transportation Safety Board is reviewing the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder from the wreckage, which will provide more insight into what happened.

Russell was part of a team of ground service workers whose duties included loading and unloading baggage, tidying planes and towing. He used a tractor to move the 76-seat Q400 turboprop plane 180 degrees before taxiing to the runway, when an air traffic controller repeatedly asked him to identify himself.

FBI and NTSB investigating stolen Horizon Air plane
FBI and NTSB investigating stolen plane

After Russell was airborne, air traffic controllers were calm and patient as they tried to keep him away from populated areas and arriving planes. One controller suggested another nearby airport where Russell could attempt to land.

"I wasn't really planning on landing it," Russell is heard on a recording with air traffic controllers and a pilot. Authorities described Russell as suicidal.

He told air traffic control: "I've played video games before and I know what I'm doing a little bit." Russell said he knew how to "put the landing gear" down. He appeared to struggle at times, however, telling air traffic control: "I have no idea what all that means" and fretted about his fuel supply declining.

A Q400 captain from another airline, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the maneuvers were "impressive" and said that even starting the plane's engines is complex: a process that includes a series of commands and getting one wrong would stop the engines from starting up.

"Pilot guy, can this thing do a back flip, you think?" Russell is heard saying on the recording with air traffic controllers. According to the recording, he said he was going to attempt barrel rolls.

Some skills he could have gotten on the job from watching others, while 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," said Jeff Price, an aviation consultant and former ramp worker. "You can watch other folks. It's not that hard to gather up a lot of this information."

Officials lost contact with the plane at 8:47 p.m. PDT, Alaska's Tilden said. Human remains were found at the crash site, the FBI said Sunday.

"I got a lot of people that care about me and it's going to disappoint them to hear that I did this. I would like to apologize to each and every one of them," Russell is heard saying before the recording ends. He called himself "just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess, never really knew it until now."

Family friend Mike Matthews read a statement from the Russells, calling the incident a "complete shock."

"It may seem difficult for those watching at home to believe, but Beebo was a warm, compassionate man," Matthews said, using Russell's nickname.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that the National Transportation Safety Board is reviewing the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder. This article has also been updated to correctly attribute a quote to Horizon Air CEO Gary Beck.