Friday, September 21, 2018

Daily Updates

Plane theft, fatal crash a mystery: How could an airline employee steal a plane?

  • Stolen-Airplane-3

    Smoke rises Saturday from the site on Ketron Island in Washington state where an Horizon Air turboprop plane crashed after it was stolen late Friday from Sea-Tac International Airport in Olympia.

    Associated Press

  • Stolen-Airplane-1-1

    A plane flies past a control tower at Sea-Tac International Airport Friday evening, Aug. 10, 2018, in SeaTac, Wash. An airline mechanic stole an Alaska Airlines plane without any passengers and took off from Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington state on Friday night before crashing near Ketron Island, officials said. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

    Elaine Thompson

  • Stolen-Airplane-2-1

    Smoke rises from the site on Ketron Island in Washington state where an Horizon Air turboprop plane crashed Friday after it was stolen from Sea-Tac International Airport as seen from the air, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, near Steilacoom, Wash. Investigators were working to find out how an airline employee stole the plane Friday and crashed it after being chased by military jets that were quickly scrambled to intercept the aircraft. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

    Ted S. Warren

  • Stolen-Plane-3-1

    Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor talks on his phone at a staging area, Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, at the ferry terminal in Steilacoom, Wash., near where a Coast Guard spokeswoman said the agency was responding to a report of a smoke plume and possible plane crash. Earlier in the evening, officials at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport said an Alaska Airlines plane had been stolen and later crashed. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

    Ted S. Warren

  • Stolen-Airplane-4-1

    Workers gather in a staging area Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, near Steilacoom, Wash., near the site on Ketron Island in Washington state where an Horizon Air turboprop plane crashed Friday after it was stolen from Sea-Tac International Airport. Investigators were working to find out how an airline employee stole the plane and crashed it after being chased by military jets that were quickly scrambled to intercept the aircraft. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

    Ted S. Warren

  • Stolen-Airplane-5

    Alaska Airlines planes sit on the tarmac at Sea-Tac International Airport Friday evening, Aug. 10, 2018, in SeaTac, Wash. An airline mechanic stole an Alaska Airlines plane without any passengers and took off from Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington state on Friday night before crashing near Ketron Island, officials said. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

    Elaine Thompson

  • Stolen-Plane-6

    Law enforcement officials stand at a staging area, Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, at the ferry terminal in Steilacoom, Wash., near where a Coast Guard spokeswoman said the agency was responding to a report of a smoke plume and possible plane crash. Earlier in the evening, officials at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport said an Alaska Airlines plane had been stolen and later crashed. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

    Ted S. Warren

  • Stolen-Plane-7-1

    Ffire trucks drive toward a ferry boat headed to Ketron Island, Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, at the ferry terminal in Steilacoom, Wash. An airline mechanic stole an empty Horizon Air turboprop plane, took off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and was chased by military jets before crashing onto Ketron, a small island in the Puget Sound, on Friday night, officials said. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

    Ted S. Warren

  • Stolen-Plane-8-1

    Ferry workers stand by as fire trucks are parked on a ferry boat headed to Ketron Island, Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, at the ferry terminal in Steilacoom, Wash. An airline mechanic stole an empty Horizon Air turboprop plane, took off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and was chased by military jets before crashing onto Ketron, a small island in the Puget Sound, on Friday night, officials said. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

    Ted S. Warren

  • Stolen-Airplane-9-1

    Alaska Airlines planes sit on the tarmac at Sea-Tac International Airport Friday evening, Aug. 10, 2018, in SeaTac, Wash. An airline mechanic stole an Alaska Airlines plane without any passengers and took off from Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington state on Friday night before crashing near Ketron Island, officials said. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

    Elaine Thompson

  • Stolen-Airplane-10-1

    Planes sit on the tarmac at Sea-Tac International Airport after service was halted after an Alaska Airlines plane was stolen Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, in Wash. An airline mechanic stole an Alaska Airlines plane without any passengers and took off from Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington state on Friday night before crashing near Ketron Island, officials said. (Bettina Hansen /The Seattle Times via AP)

    Bettina Hansen

  • Stolen-Airplane-11-1

    Alaska Airlines and other planes sit on the tarmac at Sea-Tac International Airport Friday evening, Aug. 10, 2018, in SeaTac, Wash. An airline mechanic stole an Alaska Airlines plane without any passengers and took off from Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington state on Friday night before crashing near Ketron Island, officials said. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

    Elaine Thompson

  • Stolen-Airplane-12-1

    Traffic arrives at Sea-Tac International Airport terminal Friday evening, Aug. 10, 2018, in SeaTac, Wash. An airline mechanic stole an Alaska Airlines plane without any passengers and took off from Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington state on Friday night before crashing near Ketron Island, officials said.(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

    Elaine Thompson

  • Stolen-Airplane-13-1

    Law enforcement vehicles are shown, Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, at the ferry terminal in Steilacoom, Wash., near where a Coast Guard spokeswoman said the agency was responding to a report of a smoke plume and possible plane crash. Earlier in the evening, officials at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport said an Alaska Airlines plane had been stolen and later crashed. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

    Ted S. Warren

  • Stolen-Airplane-14-1

    People stand in the Alaska Airlines ticket area at Sea-Tac International Airport Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, in SeaTac, Wash. An airline mechanic stole an Alaska Airlines plane without any passengers and took off from Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington state on Friday night before crashing near Ketron Island, officials said. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

    Elaine Thompson

  • Stolen-Airplane-15-1

    A reader board shows a number of flights delayed at Sea-Tac International Airport Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, in SeaTac, Wash. An airline mechanic stole an Alaska Airlines plane without any passengers and took off from Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington state on Friday night before crashing near Ketron Island, officials said. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

    Elaine Thompson

  • Stolen-Airplane-16-1

    People wait near the luggage area at Sea-Tac International Airport Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, in SeaTac, Wash. An airline mechanic stole an Alaska Airlines plane without any passengers and took off from Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington state on Friday night before crashing near Ketron Island, officials said. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

    Elaine Thompson

  • Stolen-Airplane-17-1

    People stand in the Alaska Airlines ticket area at Sea-Tac International Airport Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, in SeaTac, Wash.An airline mechanic stole an Alaska Airlines plane without any passengers and took off from Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington state on Friday night before crashing near Ketron Island, officials said. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

    Elaine Thompson

  • Stolen-Airplane-18-1

    Workers wearing yellow hard hats are seen at upper right from the air Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, near Steilacoom, Wash., at the site on Ketron Island in Washington state where an Horizon Air turboprop plane crashed after it was stolen from Sea-Tac International Airport Friday. Investigators were working to find out how an airline employee stole the plane and crashed it after being chased by military jets that were quickly scrambled to intercept the aircraft. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

    Ted S. Warren

  • Stolen-Airplane-19-1

    The site on Ketron Island in Washington state where an empty Horizon Air turboprop plane crashed Friday after it was stolen from Sea-Tac International Airport is seen from the air, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, near Steilacoom, Wash. Investigators were working to find out how an airline employee stole the plane and crashed it after being chased by military jets that were quickly scrambled to intercept the aircraft. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

    Ted S. Warren

  • Stolen-Airplane-20-1

    The site on Ketron Island in Washington state where an empty Horizon Air turboprop plane crashed Friday after it was stolen from Sea-Tac International Airport is seen from the air, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, near Steilacoom, Wash. Investigators were working to find out how an airline employee stole the plane and crashed it after being chased by military jets that were quickly scrambled to intercept the aircraft. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

    Ted S. Warren

  • Stolen-Airplane-21-1

    Smoke rises from the site on Ketron Island in Washington state where an Horizon Air turboprop plane crashed Friday after it was stolen from Sea-Tac International Airport as seen from the air, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, near Steilacoom, Wash. Investigators were working to find out how an airline employee stole the plane Friday and crashed it after being chased by military jets that were quickly scrambled to intercept the aircraft. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

    Ted S. Warren

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Investigators are piecing together how an airline ground agent working his regular shift stole an empty Horizon Air turboprop plane, took off from Sea-Tac International Airport and fatally 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.

A U.S. official briefed on the matter told The Associated Press the man was Richard Russell. The official wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

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. He crashed nearly an hour after the plane was taken from a maintenance area, though officials said that it did not appear that the fighter jets were involved in the crash of the aircraft. In a news release issued Saturday, the North American Aerospace Defense Command said two F-15C alert aircraft were scrambled from Portland but did not fire upon the plane.

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 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.”

Seattle FBI agent in charge Jay Tabb Jr. cautioned that the investigation would take a lot of time and details would not be released right away. 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, said Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the sheriff’s department.

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.

Russell went by “Beebo” on social media, and on his Facebook page, which had limited public access. He said he was from Wasilla, Alaska, lived in Sumner, Washington, and was married in 2012.

In a humorous YouTube video he 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.”


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