When someone commits a crime, especially one that is high-profile like stealing a commercial passenger plane, it’s not surprising when sympathy is scarce. Yet this is not the case with the young man who recently stole a plane and flew it from a major American international airport.
In fact, after learning about the details of this story, though tragic, I’m left wondering if this young man hasn’t done us an unintentional favor regarding the improvement of airport security. If he could steal a plane and crash it into an island, a terrorist could have done the same thing and flown it into a building in downtown Seattle.
Richard “Beebo” Russell was, according to friends, family, co-workers, and supervisors, a “great guy,” “well-liked,” “funny,” and a “hard worker.” He worked for four years as an airport ground employee for Horizon Airlines, a subsidiary of Alaska Airlines. Russell passed a background check, had no criminal or mental health history, and no other red flags. Still, he managed the improbable. He stole a 76-seat Horizon Air Q400 turboprop plane and took off from Sea-Tac International Airport. Russell admitted he’d learned some aspects of flying from playing video games.
Listening to the recordings of the transmissions between Russell and an impressive air traffic controller, who remains unnamed, was downright eerie. Not eerie in the sense of listening to the voice of evil. Eerie in the sense of listening to what Russell himself described as “just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it until now.”
He made the broken guy statement just after acknowledging all the people who loved him and apologizing for “disappointing” them by doing this. All during the incident, Russell remained polite, candid, and unnervingly composed while speaking with the controller and a pilot.
For example, when the controller assured Russell he wasn’t directing him toward jets and wanted to keep him away from air traffic, Russell said, “Oh, OK, yeah, yeah, I don’t want to screw with that. I’m glad you’re not…screwing up everyone else’s day on account of me.”
While seemingly suicidal, his comments seem to show he may not have completely made up his mind about committing suicide, or at least he hadn’t allowed himself to think it through. He admitted he didn’t know how to land the plane. But he also said, “This is probably like, uh, jail time for life, huh?”
In another odd twist to an already contorted story, Rick Christenson, a retired Alaska Airlines operations supervisor, watched the drama unfold in real-life from the deck of his cousin’s house. Looking out at the Tacoma Narrows Bridge over Puget Sound, he saw a familiar model of plane performing unusual maneuvers.
The plane was banking wildly, rising and falling, before plummeting toward the water. Christenson said he and others were yelling for the pilot to “pull up,” not knowing it was Russell. He pulled out of the dive only feet before he would have crashed.
Christenson said after the near crash, the plane flew south. Then an F-15 fighter flew by, headed south toward the commuter plane. News reports say authorities had scrambled two F-15s from the Washington and Oregon Air National Guards out of Portland, OR. One report noted that one of the F-15s broke the sound barrier, causing a sonic boom that some people mistook for a crash.
While that explosive sound wasn’t Russell’s stolen Horizon plane crashing, that would come next. A moment later, Christenson saw a plume of black smoke rising in the distance and knew what had happened. Russell had crashed his plane into the sparsely inhabited Ketron Island in south Puget Sound, about five miles southwest of Tacoma.
Toward the end of the communication with Russell, a pilot who was assisting the controller congratulated him on his aerial maneuver and tried in vain to coax him into landing the plane safely.
The troubled man responded with sad, seemingly conflicting statements. In one breath he said, “Ah. Dammit. I don’t know. I don’t want to. I was kind of hoping that was it.” But in the next breath, he added, “I’m gonna land it in a safe kind of manner. I think I’m gonna try a barrel roll and if that goes good, I’m just going to nose down and call it a night.”
News reports said officials didn’t know what Russell meant by “nose down.” I think he meant, to crash the plane. “Call it a night” seems to be an allusion to his death. I also believe when he said, “land it in a safe kind of manner,” he meant safe for people on the ground, not himself. No one reported any people on the ground being injured.
In the last transmission I know of, Russell says, “I feel like one of my engines is going out or something.”
The controller responds, “OK…if you could, you just want to keep that plane right over the water, maybe keep the aircraft nice and low.”
That was it.
How did this all start? According to reports, Russell, who had access to the area where ground crews had parked the Horizon plane, walked away from where he normally works loading baggage and commandeered a “pushback tug” (vehicle used to tow planes to and from taxiways and runways). He drove the tug a half-mile, hooked up the plane, and turned it 180 degrees to face the runway. He unhooked and moved the tug, taxied the plane to the runway, and took off.
On one news radio call-in show, a caller wondered why someone didn’t just block the plane in with a tug or other vehicle. The host said that from the moment Russell entered the cockpit to when he was in the air, only something like 86 seconds had passed. Even if it had been two or three times that, there would not have been enough time.
Russell’s doomed flight began on August 13 at about 7:30 p.m., and from everything I’m reading about this man from friends and family, his brain seems to have suffered some seemingly sudden and strange disconnect from reality. During the 75-minute flight, Russel spoke about experiencing a bit of turbulence near Mount Rainier, and he marveled at the beauty of the Olympic Mountain Range.
From some of his own statements, it seems he knew the seriousness of what he’d done but was powerless to stop himself. Still, throughout the incident he maintained a concern that no one, other than himself, not only not get hurt but also not even be inconvenienced. You’ll recall, he didn’t want his actions to interfere with air traffic.
If nothing else good comes out of this bizarre episode, perhaps we can learn lessons in airport security. It appears there was no way to anticipate or predict that Russell would present such a threat. Of course, that could change as new information comes up during the investigation. But, from what we know now, nothing in his background or behavior right up to the incident indicated a need for any concern.
However, what we could have anticipated is that anyone might try to abscond with an airplane from a runway at an international airport. It seems logical that officials can put protocols into place to prevent someone from taking a plane without authorization.
I won’t offer any suggestions because I don’t want to sound like one of those, um…helpful citizens, who try to offer suggestions to the police even though they know jack about police work. Well, I know jack about airports. But I’m sure the experts can come up with a solution. Still, when dealing with human beings, any solution will only be 99 percent effective, at best. Sometimes lightning strikes, and there ain’t no lightning rod around.
Let’s hope that, if nothing else, Russell’s friends and family can take comfort in knowing something useful can come of an apparently mentally unstable man’s last dramatic act on earth. And the rest of us can be thankful it was a man who meant no harm who took the plane. Now, airport officials and TSA can take steps to assure no one with evil intent is able to do the same thing.