Richard Russell, who dreamed of being in the military and once ran a bakery with his wife, was identified as the suicidal airport ground services worker who stole an airplane from Sea-Tac International Airport and took it on a dramatic unauthorized flight, where it was chased by fighter planes as he attempted “stunts” in the air before the plane crashed.
The man, known as “Rich” in air traffic control audio and dubbed the “sky king” on Twitter, broke hearts on social media as people followed the unauthorized flight before it came to a fatal end. The incident led to a dramatic and tragic night on August 10, 2018, as aircraft were grounded at Sea-Tac while fighter jets followed the man and air traffic controllers tried unsuccessfully to help him land the aircraft.
On social media, Richard Russell used the name “Beebo Russell.” Although authorities have not released his name, The Seattle Times identified the man as Richard Russell. (If you need help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.)
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Richard Russell, Who Spent Time in Alaska, Was Religious & Told Air Traffic Controllers He Was ‘Broken’
On Facebook, Rich, using the name Beebo Russell, wrote that he lived in Sumner, Washington, was from Wasilla, Alaska, and was married to Hannah Russell, who works as an assistant pastry chef and waitress, according to her social media account.
Richard Russell had a website that appears to have been for a college communications class.
“Hey all! My names Richard Russell, I’m 27 and currently living in Sumner, WA with my incredible wife Hannah. I was born in Key West, Florida, and moved to Wasilla, Alaska when I was 7. I met Hannah in Coos Bay, Oregon in 2010 while we were both going to school,” the about me section says.
A friend wrote on Facebook, “So heart broken…he was such a kind person to me. He would take my shifts if I needed. Never knew he was fighting a battle non of us knew about. He was always smiling.”
A 2012 article in the World described how Russell met his wife. “Hannah and Beebo met at a Campus Crusade for Christ gathering at Southwestern Oregon Community College last year,” the site reported.
“Our first date, he kind of cornered me into it,” Hannah Russell said to the site. “I was dead set against it.” Their business contained a sign that read, “I have loved you with an everlasting love. I will build you up again and you will be rebuilt.” In the article, Russell described himself as laid back and easy going.
On Facebook, his favorite quotes were religious in nature, including, “God IS Love” and “No Guilt in Life, No Fear in Death, this is the Power of Christ in Me,” and a non religious line, “This is America.”
A former coworker, Rick Christenson, told The Seattle Times: “He was a quiet guy. It seemed like he was well liked by the other workers. I feel really bad for Richard and for his family. I hope they can make it through this.” He said that airline employees go through background checks.
Audio captured emotional conversations between the man, named as “Rich,” and air traffic controllers trying to help him land safely. Authorities said they don’t think he had a pilot’s license and aren’t sure how he was able to take off, much less perform complicated tricks in the air like a “barrel roll.” At one point, Russell told a controller he had played a lot of video games.
“Damnit Andrew, people’s lives are at stake here,” Rich said at one point in the audio, which you can listen to later in this article.
“Ah, Rich, don’t say stuff like that,” the controller said.
“I don’t want to hurt no one. I just want you to whisper sweet nothings into my ear,” said Rich, who claimed he could fly the plane because he played video games.
Sea-Tac airport confirmed the plane was down a short time later. “An airline employee conducted an unauthorized takeoff without passengers at Sea-Tac; aircraft has crashed in south Puget Sound. Normal operations at Sea-Tac Airport have resumed,” the airport wrote.
The audio between the man known as “Rich” and air traffic controllers further captured his demeanor. “I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. I’m 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,” Richard Russell said at one point.
At one point, Rich asked for help in getting the cabin depressurized, complaining he was getting lightheaded.
“I don’t need that much help; I’ve played some video games before,” he told the controllers trying to help him. “Ah, minimum wage. We’ll chalk it up to that. Maybe that will grease the gears a little bit with the higher-ups,” he said at another point.
At another point, Richard Russell said, “I’m down to 2100; I started at like 30-something.”
“Rich, you said you had 2100 pounds of fuel left?” the controller responded.
“Yeah – I don’t know what the burnage…is like on a takeoff but yeah. It’s burned quite a bit faster than I expected.”
He also said, “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.”
2. Richard Russell Posted a Video on YouTube About Being a Baggage Handler
In a final video that he posted to YouTube, Rich Russell showed an active life full of travel and adventure. You can watch the video above.
The video starts with images of what it’s like to work as a baggage handler for an airline, sometimes in the rainy weather. “Hi…I’m a ground service agent. That means I lift a lot of bags… so many bags,” he says. “I usually have to work outside…but it allows me to do some pretty cool things too.”
On YouTube, he also went by the name Beebo Russell.
Then, it segues into a montage of photos from Russell’s trips to Alaska, France, Ireland, and other places before ending with a scene from a family gathering.
On social media, Richard Russell quickly became something of a folk hero, but people also felt sadness and empathy for his pain and his plight. “I hope this prompts a nationwide discussion about mental healthcare overall. 💔” wrote one woman on Twitter, echoing the comments of many people who heard the audio.
Live aviation audio from the tower said, at one point, that dispatchers were urging Rich Russell to try “to land that airplane safely and not hurt anybody” while dealing with a snarl of stalled planes on the ground. Other audio reported a ground stop was underway at SeaTac, the airport that services Seattle and Tacoma, Washington. Patch confirmed there was a “security incident” underway at SeaTac.
At one point in the dramatic audio, Richard Russell told the tower he was losing an engine. Periodically, his voice cut into the dispatches. Russell said on the aviation audio, “This is probably jail time for life, huh? I would hope it is for a guy like me.” People on Twitter who were following the aviation audio reported that the man attempted a “barrel roll” with the plane at one point. Others reported that the man had supposedly “buzzed” Mt. Rainier.
Russell said to dispatchers, “You think if I can land this successfully, Alaska will give me a job as a pilot?” and the Air Traffic Control tower said, “I think they will give you a job doing anything if you pull this off.” He replied, according to some sites, “Yeah right! Nah, I’m a white guy.” That last line has caused some controversy online.
Here it is:
“There is the runway just about a mile off your right side, do you see that? That’s McChord field,” the controller tells Richard Russell.
“Aw man, those guys would rough me up if I tried landing there,” Rich says. “I think I might mess something up there too. I wouldn’t want to do that. Oh- they’ve probably got anti-aircraft…not quite ready to bring it down just yet. Holy smokes, I’ve got to stop looking at the fuel because it’s going down quick.”
3. Rich Once Ran a Bakery With His Wife & Wanted to Be in the Military
On his blog, Richard talks about how he and his wife once ran a bakery. On LinkedIn, he wrote that he was owner/operator of Hannah Maries Bakery from 2012 through 2015 in North Bend, Oregon.
More recently, he listed his occupation as operations agent for Horizon Air at Sea-Tac since April 2018. He preciously worked as a ground service agent at Horizon from 2015 to present.
He attended Washington State Global University Campus from 2016-2017, seeking a bachelor’s degree in social science. He played athletics in high school in Wasilla, Alaska.
On Facebook, he had liked the Republican Party and conservative personalities like Sean Hannity and Ben Shapiro.
“We were married one year later, and one month after that we opened a bakery which we successfully ran for 3 years,” he explained on his website of his wife. “We decided to sell and move in 2015, because we were both so far removed from our families. Failing to convince Hannah of Alaska’s greatness, we settled on Sumner because of its close proximity to her family.”
Richard added, “I, meanwhile, obtained a job working for Horizon Airlines (partnered with Alaska Airlines) so I’m able to fly to Alaska at my leisure. 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. We consider ourselves bakery connoisseurs and have to try a new one every place we go. Once I earn my Bachelors in Social Sciences I will either seek a management position where I’m at now, or possibly join the military as an officer. With this blog I hope to showcase all that I’ve learned in Ms. Newman’s Communications 210 class.”
His WordPress page includes a sketch that reads, “Continuing with the theme of ground service work and travel benefits, I plan to create a simple logo that expresses both. My logo draft will be a generic suit case with minimalistic travel stickers, encircled by the text: Russell Hustle. Wish me luck! Disclaimer: I am in no way proficient in the arts.”
The man’s bizarre and ultimately doomed flight pushed fighter planes into action. The Pierce County Sheriff wrote on Twitter, “Stolen horizon airplane crashed into Ketron island. Preliminary info is that a mechanic from unknown airlines stole plane. Was doing stunts in air or lack of flying skills caused crash into Island.” The Sheriff’s Department added, “Two military F 15 chased plane but was not involved in crash” and confirmed, “No passengers on plane.”
The fighter jets were scrambled from Portland.
The Sheriff’s Department also wrote: “Told F 15s made it within a few minutes of theft of plane. Pilots kept plane out of harms way and people on ground safe. Yay air force . They may not admit for a few days. But is true..”
4. Richard Russell’s Family Called Him a ‘Warm, Compassionate Man’ & Expressed ‘Complete Shock’
Russell’s family released a statement to the news media expressing great shock and remembering Russell for his compassion.
“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,” the statement read. “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.”
The family thanked authorities, Alaskair, the community and Russell’s friends and family. They said the family “is moving forward with the difficult talk of processing our grief” and asked for space to mourn.
Authorities said Russell was suicidal. “Male is confirmed a suicidal male. Acted alone he is 29 year old Pierce county residence. We are working back ground on him now,” the Pierce County Sheriff wrote. “This is not a terrorist incident. Confirmed info .. this is a single suicide male. We know who he is. No others involved.”
The airline confirmed that an “unauthorized take-off” occurred. “We are aware of an incident involving an unauthorized take-off of a Horizon Air Q400. We believe there are no passengers on board. More information as we learn more,” Alaska Airlines wrote on Twitter around 9:20 p.m. on the west coast.
People posted photos and videos to Twitter of a plume of smoke and possible crash site. One man wrote on Twitter, “Some dude stole a plane from #Seatac (Allegedly), did a loop-the-loop, ALMOST crashed into #ChambersBay, then crossed in front of our party, chased by fighter jets and subsequently crashed. Weird times.”
CBS News reporter Kris Van Cleave wrote, “FAA sources say it appears an airline employee stole a Horizon Air Turbo Prop from SeaTac and took off and crashed Ketron Island outside Seattle.” He shared a tweet from a woman named Victoria, who wrote, “Sitting on a plane at SeaTac Airport, a Horizon employee just hijacked an airplane. He is flying around the airport, he does not know how to land it. Happening right now. SeaTac airport.”
Morgan Chesky, a reporter for KOMO News, wrote, “Per JBLM source: After being contacted by F-15’s, stolen plane began to nose dive, crashing in north Pierce County.”
NTSB investigator Debra Eckrote held a Saturday morning press conference, the day after the crash, and indicated that investigators are trying to determine “what his process was and where the aircraft was going.” She identified Rich as “ground support so, you know, they have access to aircraft,” and described it as “lucky” that the plane crashed on a “very underpopulated island.”
According to Eckrote, the plane is “highly fragmented” and she said that a background investigation is underway to further clarify Rich’s motive.
5. Rich Russell’s Wife Described Him as the Man Who Always Kept Her Laughing
On Instagram, Hannah Russell posted recent photos with Rich. “Happy birthday to the man who keeps me laughing and always improves the view 😘” she wrote with one in 2017.
“I sure married a nice pair of calves!” she joked with a photo of the couple. She posted a series of selfies showing the couple on various adventures.
At one point, Rich reported that he threw up all over the cockpit, according to the audio.
“Keep the aircraft nice and low,” the tower responded to the man at one point, advising him to keep it over the water. “We had a ground stop for quite a while here,” a dispatcher says. However, late in the evening of August 10, 2018, tower audio indicated that some planes were being released.
Although official accounts – other than through live aviation audio – were hard to come by at first, many passengers took to social media to report that pilots were telling them a man had stolen a plane.
A man named Ben Schaechter wrote on Twitter, “Halfway down the runway on Alaska airlines out of Seattle and the pilot slams on the brakes and shares we must go back to the gate. Quite a scary experience. Not entirely sure what’s happening. Someone sneak on board?”
A man named Tyler Lucas wrote, “Sitting on the runway at SeaTac, preparing for departure. Before takeoff, the pilot explains someone stole an airplane, and is flying around near Mt. Rainier.” Lucas added, “They’ve been in contact with the culprit. He doesn’t sound confident in his ability to land back at SeaTac. They are grounding all planes and waiting. Unclear if passengers are on board. #seatac.”
A woman named Robanne Stading wrote on Twitter, “#seatac airport is on a ground halt because evidently a mechanic is flying an unauthorized flightseeing trip around the mtns. They wont let anyone leave the airport while he’s up there. Pilot said it was most bizarre thing he’d heard in his career. #iflyalaska #akedchat.”
Audio from the SeaTac tower reported that aircraft were lined up on the tarmac at one point. You can listen to more archived aviation audio on the incident here, some of which captures the man’s voice:
The site Airline Geeks.com reported, “Reports saying that two F-15s have intercepted an Alaska Air Q400, operated by Horizon Air.”
The Twitter page Royal S. King wrote, “On a lake in Tacoma and 2 F-15 have intercepted at @AlaskaAir Q400 south of @SeaTacAirport.” Another man wrote, “@flytruenorth Are you following this story? Apparently someone stole a Horizon Q and is flying it over SeaTac. 😳”
One woman wrote on Twitter, “…he has stolen a big Horizon turbo prop. He is not a pilot and does not know how to land the plane. He has buzzed Mt Rainer and the Seattle area. Plane is a Q4. Stay tuned.”
Another indicated, “Seatac airspace closed. Horizon Q4 prop hijacked by unauthorized person not a pilot. Tower tracking flight and in contact. Hijacker does not know how to land the plane. Latest update from tower indicates no interest on his part to land the plane. Stay tuned.”