OLYMPIA, Wash. — Investigators worked to find out how an airline employee stole an empty Horizon Air turboprop plane, took off from Sea-Tac International Airport and crashed into a small island in the Puget Sound after being chased by military jets that were quickly scrambled to intercept the aircraft.
Officials said Saturday that the man was a 3.5-year Horizon employee and had clearance to be among aircraft, but that to their knowledge, he wasn't a licensed pilot. The 29-year-old man used a machine called a pushback tractor to first maneuver the aircraft so he could board and then take off Friday evening, authorities added.
The Associated Press and Seattle Times, both citing unnamed sources, identified him as Richard Russell.
Russell went by “Beebo” on social media, and on his Facebook page, which had limited public access. He said he was from Wasilla, Alaska, and lived in Sumner, Washington, and was married in 2012.
Russell was born in Key West, Florida and moved to Wasilla at age 7, according to a blog he apparently maintained through December 2017, the Times reported. Biographical details in the blog posts correspond to information provided by authorities, including the city in which Russell lived, his age and the details of his employment, the Times reported.
Beebo Russell competed in multiple sports at Wasilla High School in 2007 and 2008, including football, track and field and wrestling, according to news articles at the time.
On the blog, Russell wrote that he met his wife in Coos Bay, Oregon, in 2010 and they married the next year. He wrote they ran a bakery for three years.
“I...obtained a job working for Horizon Airlines (partnered with Alaska Airlines) so I’m able to fly to Alaska at my leisure,” he wrote. “In this season of life we enjoy exploring as much as possible, whether its a day (or so) trip to one of Alaska Airline’s destinations, or visiting a new area of Washington.”
It’s unclear how he attained the skills to do loops in the aircraft before crashing about an hour after taking off into a small island in the Puget Sound, authorities said.
At a news conference in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, officials from Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air said that they are still working closely with authorities as they investigate what happened.
“Safety is our No. 1 goal,” said Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Airlines. “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.”
The bizarre incident involving a worker who authorities said was suicidal points to one of the biggest potential perils for commercial air travel: airline or airport employees causing mayhem.
“The greatest threat we have to aviation is the insider threat,” Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent and transportation security expert, told The Associated Press. “Here we have an employee who was vetted to the level to have access to the aircraft and had a skill set proficient enough to take off with that plane.”
Seattle FBI agent in charge Jay Tabb Jr. cautioned that the investigation would take a lot of time, and details, including the employee's name, would not be released. Dozens of personnel were out at the crash site, and co-workers and family members were being interviewed, he said.
There was no connection to terrorism, Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the sheriff's department, said.
Video showed the Horizon Air Q400 doing large loops and other dangerous maneuvers as the sun set on Puget Sound. There were no passengers aboard.
Alaska Airlines said the suspect was a ground service agent employed by Horizon. Those employees direct aircraft for takeoff and gate approach and de-ice planes, as well as handle baggage.
In a humorous YouTube video Russell posted last year, he talked about his job and included videos and photos of his various travels.
“I lift a lot of bags. Like a lot of bags. So many bags,” he said.
Southers, the aviation security expert, said the man could have caused mass destruction. "If he had the skill set to do loops with a plane like this, he certainly had the capacity to fly it into a building and kill people on the ground," he said.
Gary Beck, CEO of Horizon Air, said it wasn't clear how the man knew to start the engine, which requires a series of switches and levers.
The plane was pursued by military aircraft before it crashed on tiny Ketron Island, southwest of Tacoma, Washington. Video showed fiery flames amid trees on the island, which is sparsely populated and only accessible by ferry. No structures on the ground were damaged, Alaska Airlines said.
Troyer said F-15 aircraft took off out of Portland, Oregon, were in the air “within a few minutes,” and the pilots kept “people on the ground safe.”
The aircraft was stolen about 8 p.m. Alaska Airlines said it was in a "maintenance position" and not scheduled for a passenger flight. Horizon Air is part of Alaska Air Group and flies shorter routes throughout the U.S. West. The Q400 is a turboprop aircraft with 76 seats.
The plane crashed in a heavily wooded area of thick underbrush on the island, said Debra Eckrote, the Western Pacific regional chief for the National Transportation Safety Board. The crash sparked a 2-acre wildfire.
"It is highly fragmented," she said of the plane. "The wings are off, the fuselage is, I think, kind of positioned upside down."
Investigators expect they will be able to recover both the cockpit voice recorder and the event data recorder from the plane.
The man could be heard on audio recordings telling air traffic controllers that he is "just a broken guy." An air traffic controller called the man "Rich," and tried to convince the man to land the airplane.
"There is a runway just off to your right side in about a mile," the controller says, referring to an airfield at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
"Oh man. Those guys will rough me up if I try and land there," the man responded, later adding "This is probably jail time for life, huh?"
Later the man said: “I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this ... Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess.”
This story was reported by the Associated Press with the Seattle Times and Anchorage Daily News staff.