How did an airline employee steal a plane?

  • 12/08/2018

US investigators are piecing together how an airline ground agent stole an empty commercial plane from Seattle's international airport and managed to get it up in the air before doing acrobatic tricks while he was being chased by military jets.

After about an hour of flying the 29-year-old crashed into a small island.

Officials said on Saturday the man was a 3.5-year Horizon Airlines employee and had clearance to be among aircraft, but that to their knowledge, he wasn't a licensed pilot.

A US official briefed on the matter told The Associated Press the man was Richard Russell.

He used a machine called a pushback tractor to first manoeuvre the aircraft, which was in a maintenance area, so he could board and then take off Friday evening, authorities said.

Astonishing video showed the Horizon Air Q400, a turboprop plane that seats 76 people, doing large loops and other dangerous manoeuvres as the sun set on Puget Sound.

Two F-15C aircraft were scrambled from Portland and pursued the plane but authorities say they didn't fire on it before it crashed on tiny Ketron Island.

Mr Russell could be heard on audio recordings telling air traffic controllers that he is "just a broken guy".

An air traffic controller tried to convince him to land the plane.

"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?"

"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."

Mr Russell's family said in a statement that they are stunned and heartbroken.

At a news conference officials from Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air said that they are still working with authorities as they investigate what happened.

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."

There was no connection to terrorism, said Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the sheriff's department.

Coaches at Wasilla High School in Alaska, where Mr Russell was a football player, wrestler and discus thrower, told the Anchorage Daily News they are shocked at the news.

Track and field coach Gary Howell said he was "absolutely the kind of kid you want on your team."

Reuters