The air traffic controller who struck up a rapport with a suicidal baggage handler after he hijacked an empty Alaska Airlines plane in Seattle has been praised for calming the situation and helping to avoid mass casualties.
Richard Russell, a 29-year-old Horizon Air employee, hijacked the 76-seat plane from the maintenance area at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and somehow managed to take off on Friday night.
He remained in contact with an air traffic controller throughout the ordeal, who calmly tried to reason with Russell up until he crashed in a fiery ball near Ketron Island.
Audio of the exchange shows just how collected the controller, who has not been identified, remained during the ordeal as Russell told him he ‘didn’t want to hurt anyone’ and apologized to his family for what he was about to do.
‘No, I’m not taking you to any jets. I’m actually keeping you away from aircraft that are trying to land at Sea-Tac,’ the controller said at one point during the ordeal. ‘We’re just trying to find a place for you to land safely.’
The controller later told Russell not to worry about ending up in jail after the hijacker joked about the consequences he would face.
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Richard Russell, a married 29-year-old Horizon Air employee, (seen with his wife, Hannah, left; and in his uniform, right) was remembered in a family statement released at a news conference on Saturday as a ‘faithful husband’ and a ‘good friend’
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association on Saturday praised the controller and the Federal Aviation Administration employees that handled the incident.
‘We especially acknowledge the contributions of the controller who worked this aircraft and communicated with the individual at the controls. This controller works at Seattle Terminal Radar Approach Control, an FAA facility located in Burien, Wash., just west of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
‘The recordings of the incident display his exceptional professionalism and his calm and poised dedication to the task at hand that is a hallmark of our air traffic controller workforce nationwide.’
A former FAA official told the Seattle Times that the controller used a ‘calm, prudent and mature voice to help settle down the individual’ and that he crafted a plan quickly to help mitigate the risks.
It comes after Russell’s family said on Saturday they feel ‘stunned and heartbroken’ over the ordeal. Russell was remembered in a family statement read out by friends at a news conference as a ‘faithful husband’ to his wife, Hannah, and a ‘good friend who was loved by everyone’.
‘It may seem difficult for those watching at home to believe, but Beebo was a warm, compassionate man,’ they wrote, referring to Russell’s nickname.
The family described his death as a ‘complete shock’, adding: ‘We are devastated by these events and Jesus is truly the only one holding this family together right now.’
‘As the voice recordings show, Beebo’s intent was not to harm anyone and he was right in saying that there are so many people who love him,’ they wrote.
Although he had security clearance to be near planes, Russell did not have a pilot’s license and it is unclear how he learned how to fly. One expert said he could have picked up some skills by using a computer flight simulator.
These images show the hijacked Horizon Air Q400 which took off from Seattle-Tacoma Airport on Friday before crashing 25 miles away in south Puget Sound (left, in the air; right, after the crash)
The family statement was read out by friends of Russell’s family on Saturday. None of his family members are thought to have been present
Witnesses described seeing the plane performing barrel rolls and loop-the-loops as the military planes directed it away from highly-populated areas and towards Ketron Island, where it crashed into a ball of flame.
‘He did some aerobatics in the airplane that I was shocked to see,’ said Rick Christenson, a retired operational supervisor for Horizon Air.
‘And for him to do that I would think that he either played in a simulator or what. It looked pretty amazing to me. Maybe it was luck, I don’t know.’
‘He was a warm, compassionate man’: Full statement from the family of hijacker Richard Russell
On behalf of the family, we are stunned and heartbroken. It may seem difficult for those watching at home to believe, but Beebo was a warm, compassionate man. It is impossible to encompass who he was in a press release. He was a faithful husband, a loving son, and a good friend. A childhood friend remarked that Beebo was loved by everyone because he was kind and gentle to each person he met.
This is a complete shock to us. We are devastated by these events and Jesus is truly the only one holding this family together right now. Without Him we would be hopeless. As the voice recordings show, Beebo’s intent was not to harm anyone and he was right in saying that there are so many people who love him.
We would like to thank the authorities who have been both helpful and respectful, Alaska Air for their resources, the community, his friends and his family for their incredible support and compassion, and Jesus whose steadfast love endures. We’d also like to thank the media for their sensitivity and acknowledging this as the only statement that will be released by the family, and we request that we now be given space to mourn.
At this time the family is moving forward with the difficult task of processing our grief. We appreciate your prayers. Thank you
During the hijacking, Russell joked with air traffic controllers about how he would be jailed for life for stealing the plane, before telling them he was a ‘broken man’ with ‘a few screws loose’.
He may also have hinted at having used some form of flight simulator in the past in an exchange when he told the officials he did not need help because, ‘I’ve played some video games before’.
Horizon Air CEO Gary Beck said he was baffled about how Russell picked up the flying skills. ‘We don’t know how he learned to do that,’ he said.
‘Commercial aircraft are complex machines. No idea how he achieved that experience.’
Russell had worked for Horizon Air at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for nearly four years, according to his LinkedIn account, as a ground service agent and an operations agent.
Horizon Air COO Constance von Muehlen said in a video statement that ‘our hearts are with the family of the individual on board as well as all our Alaska Air and Horizon Air employees’.
Officials said during a press conference on Saturday that Russell used a push back tractor to rotate the plane 180 degrees before take off.
Debra Eckrote, of the National Transportation Safety Board, said 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.’
Russell was born in Key West, Florida and moved to Alaska when he was seven years old, according to a 2017 blog post. He met his wife, Hannah, in 2010 while they were both in school and married one year later. It doesn’t appear that they had any children.
According to Russell’s blog, he and Hannah opened a bakery called Hannah Marie’s Bakery in North Bend, Oregon and ran it for three years.
In 2015, the couple relocated to Seattle ‘because we were both so far removed from our families’, Russell wrote.
‘Failing to convince Hannah of Alaska’s greatness, we settled on Sumner because of its close proximity to her family,’ he posted.
While living in Seattle, Russell started working for Horizon Air writing that he enjoyed being able to travel to Alaska in his spare time. Russell, who was pursuing his bachelor’s degree for social sciences from Washington State University, said he wanted to move up in his company to one day work in a management position.
The Horizon Air worker, however, also had other dreams, writing on his blog that he was considering becoming a military officer.
Russell has worked for Horizon Air at Seattle-Tacoma Airport for nearly four years, according to his LinkedIn account, as a ground service agent and an operations agent
Russell, 29, married his wife Hannah in 2011 after meeting in school the year before. They are seen together in an undated photo
Russell posted several videos on his blog showing him and his wife (pictured) traveling around the globe
Russell’s blog is filled with pictures of him and his wife traveling across the globe. The 29-year-old also shared pictures from his wedding day and several videos showcasing what he does at work.
In one video, apparently for a class project, Russell introduces himself as ‘Beebo Russell’ and says he ‘lifts a lot of bags’ at his job.
‘Like a lot of bags,’ he says. ‘So many bags.’
He went on to say that because of his job he’s been able to visit places like France, Idaho, Mexico, Ireland and Alaska. Russell ended the nearly two-minute long video by sharing photos of his family.
Seattle plane hijacker’s final YouTube post reveals his boredom with his ‘minimum wage’ job
The final YouTube video posted by a Seattle plane hijacker depicts a happily married man with a monotonous job that’s only silver lining was the travel opportunities it afforded him.
Richard Russell has been revealed to be the 29-year-old who stole an Alaska Airlines jet from the Seattle-Tacoma Airport and took it for an hour-long joyride before crashing on an island in a ball of flames on Friday evening.
A video posted to Russell’s amateur travel blog in December 2017 provides an intimate view into his life as a grounds service agent for Horizon Airlines, a job that consisted primarily of loading and unloading luggage, paying only $13.75 per hour.
‘Hi, I’m Beebo Russell and I’m a grounds service agent. That means, I lift a lot of bags. Like, a lot of bags. So many bags,’ he narrates over back-to-back clips of suitcases being loaded on and off of airplanes as a lighthearted tune plays in the background.
‘Look at all them bags. Ooh, a purple one,’ he says cheekily.
After making the point about the monotony of Russell’s job through several drawn-out luggage clips, the video flashes a selfie of the 29-year-old working in the rain, followed by footage of a storm soaking the Sea-Tac tarmac.
‘I usually have to work outside in this,’ Russell says.
‘But, it allows me to do some pretty cool things, too.’
The second half of the two-minute video is devoted to Russell’s travels, featuring photos and videos from his different trips around the world.
Several of his adventures were in his wife’s home state of Alaska, including a plane tour of the Misty Fjords in Ketchikan and hiking trips at Hatcher Pass in Palmer and Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau.
He also shows off clips from a ski trip at Schweitzer Mountain in Sandpoint, Idaho, and a hiking trip at Precipice Trail in Maine’s Acadia National Park.
Outside of the US, one of Russell’s favorite locations appears to be France, where he’d toured everywhere from Alsace to Sisteron to the Lavender Field in Valensole.
Other international experiences shown in the video included a hurling match in Dublin, Ireland, and a guys’ weekend at Chichen Itza in Mexico.
Russell wraps up the video with several photos at gatherings with friends and family, saying: ‘Most importantly, I get to visit those I love most.’
Russell said in a blog post that he and his wife met in Oregon and moved to Seattle in 2015
It does not appear that Russell and his wife had children. The couple are pictured together in a Facebook photo
Pictured above is Russell at what appears to be at a wedding. He posted the photo at the end of one of his YouTube videos
Rick Christenson, retired from Horizon Air, told the DailyMail.com that Russell was ‘quiet’ and ‘a nice kid’.
Christenson didn’t supervise Russell’s team, but said he saw the 29-year-old in passing while at work.
‘He always had a nice smile,’ he said. ‘He seemed quiet, and he always had a smile. The people that knew him said he was a nice guy.’
Christenson said he was sitting on his deck Friday night at his Tacoma home with his wife, his cousin and his cousin’s wife when he saw the Horizon Q400 fly over his house.
‘All of a sudden one of the Horizon Q400s came over the house at 500 feet, followed by two F-15s; one was high, one was low,’ Christenson said, adding that he knew something was wrong because the plane was flying way too low.
He added in a separate interview: ‘Everybody’s stunned… that something like this would happen. How could it? Everybody’s been through background checks.’
The former supervisor said he grabbed a pair of binoculars to watch the aircraft, admitting that he was ‘scared’ and ‘concerned’ because he didn’t know what was going on.
‘He was doing a lot of weird flying, weird turns,’ he said, ‘but he was coming back towards us, towards our way.’
Christenson said while the plane was over the water it did a 360 degree roll ‘and went into a steep dive’.
‘He brought the one wing up and the whole airplane rolled and as it rolled it went into a dive. It looked control,’ he said, adding that the plane pulled up with less than 50 feet between the nose of the aircraft and the water.
Christenson said two minutes later there was ‘big plume of black smoke’, indicating the plane had crashed.
Two F-15 fighter jets scrambled from Portland ‘minutes later’ to intercept it, according to Pierce County Sheriff’s Office. Pictured is the hijacked plane, top, and one of the F-15s beneath it
Smoke and an orange glow are seen on Ketron Island in Washington state, where the plane eventually crash landed
The retired Horizon Air worker also said he doesn’t understand how Russell was able to back the aircraft onto the taxiway by himself, although he said it is possible.
‘It’s not the procedure,’ he said, explaining that usually a two-person crew moves aircraft.
Christenson said under normal circumstances one worker is in the cockpit communicating with with the tower, and a second person is on the tractor used to push the plane.
Authorities have said that Russell was in the aircraft alone, but don’t know how he moved the plane and took off undetected.
Russell’s main role as a ground service agent was to load and unload bags, direct aircraft for takeoff, and de-ice planes in the winter.
According to a job posting, ground service agents are paid roughly $13.75 an hour and as a full-time employee they receive benefits, travel privileges for themselves and family members and are eligible for a bonus program.
Nowhere in the job description does it mention that ground service agents are permitted to fly planes.
Police officers standing at a staging ground at the ferry terminal in Steilacoom. Questions will now be asked about security at the airport and how an unqualified worker was given access to the plane
Emergency services vehicles at the ferry terminal in Steilacoom, Washington, on Friday evening, near by the suspected crash site
‘I don’t need that much help. I’ve played some video games before’: Employee speaks to air traffic control moments before crash
Shortly after the plane took off, traffic controllers were heard on an Internet livestream speaking to a man identified as ‘Rich’.
‘There is the runway just off your right side in about a mile, do you see that?’ the traffic controller said.
‘Oh those guys will try to rough me up if I try land there…,’ Rich replied. ‘I think I might mess something up there too. I wouldn’t want to do that. Oh they probably have got anti-aircraft.’
‘They don’t have any of that stuff, we are just trying to find you a place to land safely.’
‘Yeah, not quite ready to bring it down just yet, but holy smokes I need to stop looking at the fuel ‘cos it’s going down quick.’
‘OK, Rich, if you could, could you start a left-hand turn and we’ll take you down to the south-east.’
‘This is probably jail time for life, huh? I would hope it is for a guy like me. ‘
Rich: I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this.
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
Rich: I’m down to 2,100, I started at like 30-something.
Air traffic control: Rich, you said you had 2,100 pounds of fuel left?
Rich: Yeah, I don’t know what the burnage, burnout? Is like on a takeoff, but yeah, it’s burned quite a bit faster than I expected.
Air traffic control: Right now he’s just flying around, and he just needs some help controlling the aircraft.
Rich: Nah I mean, I don’t need that much help. I’ve played some video games before. I would like to figure out how to get this… make it pressurized or something so I’m not lightheaded.
Rich: Ah minimum wage. We’ll chalk it up to that. Maybe that will grease the gears a little bit with the higher-ups
Rich: Damnit Andrew, people’s lives are at stake here.
Air traffic control: Ah Rich, don’t say stuff like that.
Rich: I don’t want to hurt anyone, I just want you to whisper sweet nothings into my ear.
Rich: Hey do you think if I land this successfully Alaska will give me a job as a pilot?
Air traffic control: You know, I think they would give you a job doing anything if you could pull this off.
Rich: Yeah right! Nah, I’m a white guy
Air traffic control: If you wanted to land, probably your best bet is that runway just ahead and to your left. Again, that’s McCourt (sic) Field.
If you wanted to try, that might be the best way to set up and see if you can land there. Or just like the pilot’s suggestion, the other option might be over Puget Sound, into the water.
Rich: Dang, did you talk to McCourt, cause I don’t know if I’d be happy with you telling me I could land like that, cause I could really mess some stuff up.
Air traffic control: Well Rich I already talked to ’em. Just like me, what we want to see is you not get hurt, or anyone else get hurt. So if you want to try to land, that’s the way to go.
Rich: Hey I want the coordinates of that orca, you know, the mama orca with the baby. I want to see that guy.
Rich: Hey, is that pilot on? I want to know what this weather is going to be like in the Olympics (mountains).
Air traffic control: Well, if you can see the Olympics, the weather’s good. I can see the Olympics from my window, and it looks pretty good over there.
Rich: Alright, ’cause I felt some, what felt like turbulence around Rainer, but there was no clouds hardly.
Air traffic control: Oh, that’s just the wind blowing over all over the bumpy surfaces there.
Captain Bill: Alright Rich, this is Captain Bill. Congratulations, you did that, now let’s try to land that airplane safely and not hurt anyone on the ground.
Rich: Alright, damnit, I don’t know man, I don’t know. I don’t want to… I was kind of hoping that would be it, you know.
Rich: I’m gonna land it, in a safe kind of manner. I think I’m gonna try to do a barrel roll, and if that goes good, I’m just gonna nose down and call it a night.
Air traffic control: Well Rich, before you do that, let’s think about this. I’ve got another pilot coming up, pilot Joel, in just a minute here I hope. And we’ll be able to give you some advice on what to do next.
Rich: I feel like one of my engines is going out or something.
Air traffic control: OK Rich, if you could, you just want to keep that plane right over the water. Maybe keep the aircraft nice and low.
Rich: Just kind of lightheaded, dizzy. Man, the sights went by so fast. I was thinking, like, I’m going to have this moment of serenity, take in all the sights. There’s a lot of pretty stuff, but they’re prettier in a different context.
Air traffic control: Do you have any idea of how much fuel you have left?
Rich: Oh man, not enough. Not enough to get by. Like, uh, 760? 760 pounds?
Air traffic control: Just flying around the plane, you seem comfortable with that?
Rich: Oh hell yeah, it’s a blast. I’ve played video games before so I know what I’m doing a little bit.
Air traffic control: OK, and you can see all the terrain around you, you’ve got no issue with visibility or anything?
Rich: Naw, everything’s peachy, peachy clean. Just did a little circle around Rainer, it’s beautiful. I think I’ve got some gas to go check out the Olympics (mountains).
Rich: I wouldn’t know how to land it, I wasn’t really planning on landing it.
Rich: Sorry, my mic came off, I threw up a little bit. I’m sorry about this, I hope this doesn’t ruin your day.
Rich: Man, have you been to the Olympics? These guys are gorgeous, holy smokes.
Air traffic control: Ya, I have been out there, it’s always a nice drive.
Air traffic control: Hey I bet you do. I haven’t done much hiking over there. But if you could start a left turn, and back towards the east. I know you’re getting a good view there, but if you go too much farther in that direction I won’t be able to hear you anymore.
Rich: Hey pilot guy, can this thing do a backflip, you think?
Rich: I wouldn’t mind just shooting the s**t with you guys, but it’s all business, you know?
During a press conference on Saturday morning NTSB investigator Debra Eckrote said they are trying to determine ‘what his process was and where the aircraft was going’.
‘He’s ground support so, you know, they have access to aircraft,’ she said, adding that that we’re ‘very lucky’ the plane went down on a ‘very underpopulated island’.
She said the plane came to rest in a thick underbrush on Ketron Island, and first responders had to ‘blaze a trail’ to get to the wreckage.
Eckrote said the plane is ‘highly fragmented’ and the wings were torn off in the crash. She said responders could not identify a lot Friday night because there was a fire, but they were taking Saturday to ‘focus on the areas that we’re looking for’.
Eckrote called the incident ‘very usual’ and said the FBI were doing a background check on Russell to determine a motive.
‘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,’ said Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Airlines.
Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said on Saturday morning that president Trump was briefed on the incident and was monitoring the situation. She also praised the response effort for its ‘swift action’ and ensuring public safety.
Ferry workers stand by as fire trucks are driven onto a ferry boat headed to Ketron Island, Friday, Aug. 10
A map showing Ketron Island, a heavily wooded area inhabited by 24 people, according to the 2000 census
At one point in the flight, Russell asked air traffic controllers: ‘Hey do you think if I land this successfully Alaska will give me a job as a pilot?’
The air traffic controller, trying to keep him on side, replied ‘you know, I think they would give you a job doing anything if you could pull this off’, to which Rich replied: ‘Yeah right! Nah, I’m a white guy.’
He was also heard telling traffic controllers he was ‘just a broken guy’ before telling them he was preparing to go jail.
‘This is probably jail time for life, huh? I would hope it is for a guy like me,’ he said.
Once again, traffic control tried to get Russell to land.
‘There is the runway just off your right side in about a mile, do you see that?’ the traffic controller said.
‘Oh those guys will try to rough me up if I try land there…,’ Russell replied. ‘I think I might mess something up there too. I wouldn’t want to do that. Oh they probably have got anti-aircraft.’
‘They don’t have any of that stuff, we are just trying to find you a place to land safely,’ the traffic controller responded.
Russell told the air traffic controller he wasn’t ‘quite ready’ to bring the plane down.
‘But holy smokes I need to stop looking at the fuel ‘cos it’s going down quick,’ he added.
‘OK, Rich, if you could, could you start a left-hand turn and we’ll take you down to the south-east,’ the traffic controller said.
Air Alaska passengers wait in the terminal following the hijacking incident, which grounded planes and led to several flights being delayed
A large Alaska Air aircraft maintenance building is viewed on takeoff from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in this undated file photo
Ketron Island, where the plane went down, is a densely wooded area home to 24 people, according to the 2000 census. None of the island’s residents were thought to have been harmed.
Royal King told The Seattle Times he was photographing a wedding when he saw the low-flying turboprop being chased by to F-15s. He said he didn’t see the crash but saw smoke.
‘It was unfathomable, it was something out of a movie,’ he told the newspaper. ‘The smoke lingered. You could still hear the F-15s, which were flying low.’
Horizon Air is part of Alaska Air Group and flies shorter routes throughout the U.S. West.
Sea-Tac is the ninth busiest airport in the US, and flew 46.9 million passengers and more than 425,800 metric tons of air cargo in 2017.
- For confidential support in the US call the National Suicide Prevention Line on 1-800-273-8255.
- For confidential support in the UK call the Samaritans on 116123 or visit a local Samaritans branch, see www.samaritans.org for details.
- For confidential support in Australia call the Lifeline 24-hour crisis support on 13 11 14.
HOW WAS SEATTLE AIRLINE EMPLOYEE ABLE TO HIJACK JET?
Investigators have been working to determine how Horizon Air employee Richard Russell was able to steal an empty turboprop plane from Sea-Tac Airport and take it for an hour-long joyride that ended in a fiery crash on an island in the Puget Sound.
The 29-year-old reportedly stole the Horizon Air Q400 jet from the maintenance area and took to the skies around 8pm Friday, despite not having any apparent flying experience.
It remains unclear how he was able to gain access to the aircraft and fly it out of the airport undetected.
‘We don’t know how he learned to do that,’ Horizon CEO Gary Beck told reporters when asked how Russell was able to perform loop-the-loop and barrels while flying the aircraft.
‘Commercial aircraft are complex machines. No idea how he achieved that experience.’
Russell has worked for Horizon Air at Seattle-Tacoma Airport for nearly four years, according to his LinkedIn account, as a ground service agent and an operations agent.
The bizarre incident involving a worker 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 AP.
‘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.’
The Friday night crash happened because the 29-year-old man was ‘doing stunts in air or lack of flying skills,’ the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department said. The man, who was believed killed, wasn’t immediately identified.
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.
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.
Authorities initially said Russell was a mechanic, but Alaska Airlines later said he was believed to be a ground service agent employed by Horizon. Those employees direct aircraft for takeoff and gate approach and de-ice planes.
Sheriff’s department officials said they were working with the FBI in investigating the man’s background and trying to determine his motive.
Investigators expect they will be able to recover both the cockpit voice recorder and the event data recorder from the plane.
Alaska Air Group CEO Brad Tilden said in a statement early Saturday morning that the airline was ‘working to find out everything we possibly can about what happened.’
The airline was coordinating with the Federal Aviation Administration, the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board, he said.