Smoke rises from the site on Ketron Island in Washington state where an Horizon Air turboprop plane crashed Friday after it was stolen from Sea-Tac International Airport as seen from the air, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, near Steilacoom, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Friendly tone belied desperate acts of Seattle plane thief

Investigators working to find out how an airline employee stole the plane Friday and crashed it after being chased by military jets.

He cracked jokes, complimented the professional demeanour of an air traffic controller and apologized for making a fuss.

But the friendly tone of a 29-year-old airport worker who stole a commercial plane Friday night, performing acrobatic stunts before the fatal plunge into a thick island forest, belied his desperate actions.

“I think I’m going to try to do a barrel roll, and if that goes good I’ll go nose down and call it a night,” Richard Russell said from the cockpit, according to a recording of his conversation with the controller.

The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed Sunday that Russell had died in the fiery wreckage, but whether the crash was deliberate or accidental was one of several topics remaining for investigators.

Others include how, nearly 17 years after the 9-11 attack, someone can simply take a passenger plane from a major U.S. airport without authorization.

The Seattle FBI office said Sunday that it had recovered the flight data recorder and components of the cockpit voice recorder from the Horizon plane. The NTSB is now processing the equipment.

The FBI also said it found human remains among the wreckage.

Related: Authorities probe how airline employee could steal plane

Related: U.S. flight museum founder ID’ed as pilot in Abbotsford International Airshow crash

Related: Crash reported after plane stolen from Seattle airport

Tragic as Russell’s death was, he could have inflicted vastly more damage had he been so inclined. Potential targets included tens of thousands of fans assembling at Safeco Field, about 12 miles (19 kilometres) away, for a sold-out Pearl Jam concert just as he took off.

“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,” Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Airlines, told a news conference Saturday.

The plane was a Bombardier Q400, a turboprop that seats 76 people, owned by Horizon Air, part of Alaska Airlines. It had been parked at a cargo and maintenance area for the night after arriving from Victoria, British Columbia, earlier in the day.

Russell, a 3 1/2-year Horizon employee, worked as a ground service agent. His responsibilities included towing and pushing aircraft for takeoff and gate approach, de-icing them, and handling baggage.

Authorities said he used a tractor to rotate the plane 180 degrees, positioning it so that he could taxi toward a runway. They said it’s not clear whether he had ever taken flight lessons or used flight simulators, or where he gained the skills to take off. The plane didn’t require a key, but it did require buttons and switches to be activated in a particular order.

His 75-minute flight during the golden twilight took him south and west, toward the Olympic Mountains. As a flight controller tried to persuade him to land, he wondered aloud about whether he had enough fuel to make it to the Olympics, talked of the beautiful view, and said he had a lot of people who cared about him, apologizing for what he was doing.

He complimented the controller: “You are very calm, collect, poised,” he said.

He said flying was a “blast” and that he didn’t need much help: “I’ve played some video games before.”

“You think if I land this successfully Alaska will give me a job as a pilot?” he joked.

He also told the controller he “wasn’t really planning on landing” the aircraft, and he described himself as “just a broken guy.”

Authorities sent fighter jets to escort him, and the controller repeatedly tried to direct him to runways. But the plane slammed into tiny Ketron Island, a sparsely populated island southwest of Tacoma.

Russell went by “Beebo” on social media. On his Facebook page, which had limited public access, he said he was from Wasilla, Alaska; lived in Sumner, Washington; and was married in 2012.

In a humorous YouTube video he posted last year, he talked about his job and included videos and photos of his travels.

“I lift a lot of bags. Like a lot of bags. So many bags,” he said.

Russell’s family said in a statement that they were stunned and heartbroken. They said it’s clear Russell didn’t intend to harm anyone, and “he was right in saying that there are so many people who loved him.”

___

Associated Press reporters Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Washington, and Keith Ridler in Boise, Idaho, contributed.

Gene Johnson, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

20-bed emergency shelter to open in Hope in October

Supportive housing also planned for two lots on Old Hope Princeton Way, adjacent to the shelter

Fraser River First Nations say they aren’t getting their share of sockeye

Shortage is a result of decisions made by DFO, not a shortage of sockeye, complaint says

PHOTOS: Japanese-Canadians who built Highway 3 forever remembered with Mile 9 sign

A lesser-known part of B.C. history is the 1,700 Japanese-Canadian men who built highways in WWII

Hope arm-wrestler turned track and field star wins five medals at 55+ Games

Seven medals total coming back to Hope from golf and track and field events

Hope daycare and preschool project delayed past ‘aggressive ’ September start-date

12 families are waiting for Swetexl, a collaboration between faith, First Nations and education organizations, to open

Video: Flyers new mascot ‘Gritty’ a bearded, googly-eyed terror

The Philadelphia Flyers unveiled their new mascot Monday, and as one would expect of the team that gave us the “Broad Street Bullies,” he’s far from cuddly.

Edmonton cannabis company revenues more than triples to $19.1 million

Aurora Cannabis revenues more than triple in fourth quarter

B.C. pharmacist suspended for giving drugs with human placenta

RCMP had samples of the seized substances tested by Health Canada

Seattle one step closer to NHL after arena plan approved

Seattle City Council unanimously approved plans for a privately funded $700 million renovation of KeyArena

Harvest Moon to light up B.C. skies with an ‘autumn hue’

It’s the first moon after the autumn equinox

Hockey league gets $1.4M for assistance program after Humboldt Broncos crash

Program will help players, families, coaches and volunteers after the shock of the deadly crash

Canada has removed six out of 900 asylum seekers already facing U.S. deportation

Ottawa had said the ‘overwhelming majority’ had been removed

Appeal pipeline decision but consult Indigenous communities, Scheer says

The federal appeals court halted the Trans Mountain expansion last month

Most Read