A suicidal airport grounds services worker 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, authorities and multiple reports on social media said.
“A joyride gone terribly wrong,” Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor said in a news conference, adding that the plane crashed either because the man didn’t know how to fly it or because the man was trying to perform stunts. The 29-year-old Washington State man appears to be dead, but no one else was injured, Pastor said.
The pilot was named as Richard Russell by the Seattle Times. You can read about Russell’s life here.
Audio captured emotional conversations between the man, named as “Rich,” and air traffic controllers trying to help him land the 76-seat airplane safely. Rich was born in Key West, Florida, moved to Alaska as a child, and once ran a bakery; he dreamed of being in the military and was assigned to unload bags at the Seattle airport, but was not authorized to fly airplanes.
His family expressed “complete shock” and remembered him as a compassionate man.
“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, a Horizon Airlines employee from Sumner, Washington, who claimed he could fly the plane because he played video games. However, at another point Rich admitted he didn’t know how to land the plane and was never planning to do so. “I wouldn’t know how to land it,” he said.
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,” the unidentified man 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, Rich 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.”
At one point, “Rich” talked about the serenity of the view.
You can listen to more of the archived audio later in this article. “I hope this prompts a nationwide discussion about mental healthcare overall. ?” wrote one woman on Twitter, echoing the comments of many people who heard it. (If you need help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.)
Here’s what you need to know:
Fighter Jets Chased the Plane Before It Crashed Into Ketron Island
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.”
NORAD said in a statement that the fighter jets did not fire on the airplane or shoot it down.
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..”
Alaska Airlines also released this statement:
Alaska Airlines believes a ground service agent employed by Horizon Air was the individual responsible for flying the Horizon Q400 without clearance from Sea-Tac International Airport around 8 p.m. tonight.
The plane, which was taken from a maintenance position and was not scheduled for passenger flight, crashed about an hour later in a wooded area on Ketron Island in rural Pierce County. No ground structures were involved at the crash site.
Military jets were scrambled from Portland, but it does not appear that these jets were involved in the crash of the Horizon aircraft.
This individual who took the aircraft, who has not yet been positively identified until remains are examined, is believed to have been the only person on the plane when the plane was taken from a maintenance position at Sea-Tac.
The man has not been named, but authorities said he 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 FBI’s Seattle office is investigating but doesn’t suspect terrorism.
The airline earlier 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.”
Live aviation audio from the tower said, at one point, that dispatchers were urging the man 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, “Rich” told the tower he was losing an engine. Periodically, his voice cut into the dispatches. At one point, “Rich” (or “Rick”), 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 – or at least claimed he was going to do so. Others reported that the man had supposedly “buzzed” Mt. Rainier.
The man said to dispatchers at one point, “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, “yeahhh right. Nah, I’m a white guy.”
“There is the runway just about a mile off your right side, do you see that? That’s McChord field,” the controller tells the man.
“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.”
At one point, the man 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.
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.
Passengers Reported That Pilots Said Someone Stole a Plane as Reports Broke of the Incident
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:
Jon Ostrower, editor-in-chief of the Air Current, wrote on Twitter early on, “I’m not prepared to report what I’m picking up on the rumor mill right now. But stay tuned. This night is going to be a very weird one.”
He also wrote, “Something very weird is going on over @SeaTacAirport right now. The skies are eerily silent.”
The site Airline Geeks.com reported, “Reports saying that two F-15s have intercepted an Alaska Air Q400, operated by Horizon Air.” Again, this information was not confirmed by authorities.
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.”
This article will be updated as more information is learned about the incident.
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