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SEATAC, Wash.—At first, air-traffic controllers didn’t seem alarmed when Richard Russell climbed into the cockpit of a small airliner here Friday evening, spooled up its twin turboprop engines and trundled from its parking spot near a cargo area.
Ground-services workers like Mr. Russell sometimes shuttle planes between locations at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and other fields without promptly checking in with the tower as required.
This time, though, the 29-year-old, untrained as a pilot but with a penchant for airplane videogames, headed for the runway, opened up the throttle and roared into the air without clearance or a flight plan. It wasn’t clear whether the theft was a joy ride, a hijacking, a terrorist attack or a suicide mission.
Mr. Russell flew for about an hour toward Tacoma over Puget Sound, a meandering trip punctuated by moves that included a roll and a flip and a soundtrack of calm, sometimes wistful radio exchanges with controllers trying to determine just what his motives were before he finally plunged to his death.
In Mr. Russell’s more than three years at
Alaska Air Group
commuter arm, Horizon Air, his job at times required him to know how to operate an airplane’s controls, to use its brakes, start its electric generator and use its radios to communicate with air-traffic control, according to a former supervisor. But it didn’t include starting a plane’s engines. On Friday, he did just that.
An air-traffic controller radioed the plane as it moved from a cargo area toward the runway without authorization.
“The Dash-8 on 16C, say your call sign,” the controller said, according to independently recorded air-traffic control radio communications. There was no reply as the plane kept rolling.
The Q400 lifted off around 7:32 p.m. PDT.
The military was quickly alerted. Less than 10 minutes later, two F-15 jet fighters scrambled from Portland, Ore., and began dogging the plane, ready to shoot it down if necessary, according to a senior military commander familiar with the timeline.
Though Mr. Russell didn’t have a pilot’s license, according to his employer, he deftly performed a series of aerobatic rolls and steep dives with the 76-seat turboprop airliner that left experts and onlookers in awe, moves that would have been daunting for an experienced Q400 pilot.
Horizon Chief Executive
called the moves “incredible maneuvers by the aircraft…I don’t know how he achieved the experience he did.”
Mr. Russell’s unlikely talent was one of many elements that added an extraordinary quality to the tragic and frightening episode.
Also startling was the way he indicated he had learned to fly from computer simulations.
“I don’t need that much help. I’ve played some videogames before,” Mr. Russell told air-traffic controllers. Such computerized flight-simulator software could have depicted the same workhorse turboprop model he stole on Friday, said government and industry air-safety experts. It is widely available for purchase and can be run on normal home computers.
At another point, he said, “I know how to put the landing gear down.” Then, apparently revealing suicidal intent, he added: “I really wasn’t planning on landing it.”
He also indicated familiarity with at least some of the controls and more than a cursory understanding of cockpit layout and aircraft operations, including a specific reference to the system that regulates cabin pressure.
At other times Mr. Russell seemed in over his head. “That’s all mumbo jumbo, I have no idea what all that means. I wouldn’t know how to punch it in,” he told controllers at one point.
The drama played out in skies over Puget Sound, south and west of Seattle, as people on the ground watched him loop and dive, at times afraid he would crash into them, according to accounts on social media.
Controllers tried to instruct Mr. Russell to stay low, avoid populated areas and try to land the aircraft, according to unofficial air-traffic control audio. They brought in an airline captain to help talk Mr. Russell through the flight commands.
By 8:47 p.m. local time, air-traffic control had lost contact with him, according to Alaska Air CEO
Horizon is an Alaska affiliate.
Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor said the plane crashed on a small, sparsely populated island off the coast in south Puget Sound. On Saturday at 1:38 p.m. local time. Mr. Russell was pronounced dead.
Some who knew Mr. Russell were shocked by his actions.
“It may seem difficult for those watching at home to believe, but Beebo was a warm, compassionate man,” family friend Mike Mathews said in a statement on behalf of Mr. Russell’s friends and family and using a nickname for Mr. Russell. “We are devastated by these events.”
Horizon said Mr. Russell was hired in February 2015 as a ground-service agent and went through criminal background checks every few years. He wasn’t known to have a criminal record.
The former Horizon supervisor described Mr. Russell as a friendly co-worker with a can-do attitude. “He was very good,” the former supervisor said. “He was always out there. You never had to go looking for him.”
DeAndre Halbert, who worked with Mr. Russell until eight months ago, said Mr. Russell was even-keeled and didn’t seem particularly interested in becoming a pilot. He was known to be intelligent and bookish—constantly reading a novel.
In a video he appears to have created and posted to YouTube and a personal website in December, Mr. Russell said his job could be monotonous. “I lift a lot of bags. Like, a lot of bags. So many bags,” he said. “But it allows me to do some pretty cool things too,” he added, as the video displayed footage and images from his travels to France, Ireland, Alaska, and other destinations.
“It evens out in the end,” he said.
Mr. Russell told the controller he wanted to apologize for what he did to the people he cares about.
“I would like to apologize to each and every one of them,” he said. ”I am just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess, never really knew it till now.”
—Jim Oberman contributed to this article.
Appeared in the August 13, 2018, print edition as ‘Plane Thief Had No Training but on Videogames.’