Richard Russell's "final descent to the ground was intentional," federal investigators said in a news release on Friday ending their months of investigation. The FBI will not be pursuing federal charges.
The Horizon Air baggage handler who stole a commercial airplane from Sea-Tac Airport and took it for a 73-minute joy ride over Puget Sound in August acted alone and intentionally crashed the plane into sparsely populated Ketron Island, the FBI announced Friday after a three-month investigation.
Richard “Beebo” Russell’s “final descent to the ground was intentional,” federal investigators said in a news release on Friday.
His motive remains a mystery, the bureau concluded.
“Extensive investigative activity failed to reveal any additional subject(s) involved in the planning or execution of the unauthorized flight. Given the death of Russell and his lack of co-conspirators, the FBI will not be pursuing federal charges.”
Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office has officially ruled Russell’s death a suicide.
Interviews with Russell’s work colleagues, friends and family and a review of texts he exchanged during the incident didn’t turn up anything to “suggest the theft of the aircraft was related to wider criminal activity or terrorist ideology,” the FBI noted. “Although investigators received information regarding Russell’s background, possible stressors, and personal life, no element provided a clear motivation for Russell’s actions.”
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Gary Beck, Horizon Air’s president and CEO, said in a statement Friday the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) also has separately investigated the incident and found “no violations of security regulations by Horizon Air.”
Horizon is “working with our industry partners, governmental authorities and other subject matter experts to review pertinent safety protocols, and determine where there may be opportunities to make enhancements as we move forward,” Beck’s statement said.
The findings released Friday also detailed a timeline describing how Russell’s unauthorized flight unfolded the evening of Aug. 10.
Russell, a married 29-year-old Alaska transplant who lived in Sumner, arrived for work about 2:36 p.m., and cleared security checkpoints without any anomalies, the timeline said.
At 7:15 p.m., he arrived in a tow vehicle to the cargo area at the far north end of Sea-Tac’s airfield and climbed aboard Horizon Air Q400 four minutes later. Russell began the “sequence to start aircraft,” at 7:22 p.m., causing its propellers to start turning.
Over the next few minutes, Russell exited the plane and used the tow vehicle to turn its nose toward the airfield. He then pulled it away from its parked location at 7:32 p.m., with the aircraft taking off one minute later.
For the next hour and 13 minutes, Russell piloted the plane, at times pulling off several aerobatic stunts during the unauthorized flight, before crashing into the woods on the island in South Puget Sound at 8:46 p.m.
During a rambling, recorded conversation with ground control during the flight, Russell described himself as a “man in crisis,” but also calmly chatted about Mount Rainier’s beauty and how to find an orca that for days had garnered national attention while carrying its dead calf in Puget Sound.
The flight shut down airport traffic, prompted two F-15 fighter jets in Portland to break the sound barrier while scrambling to the scene and drew dozens of witnesses to call 911.
It also left pilots and other aviation experts speculating as to how Russell, a low-paid ground-services employee with no apparent pilot experience, knew how to fly the 76-seat passenger turboprop plane and pull off the aerial maneuvers.
The investigation didn’t find that Russell had received any formal flight training.
“However, investigators learned that Russell was familiar with the checklist of actions for starting an airplane,” according to the FBI’s statement. “Investigators were also aware of internet searches Russell performed for flight instructional videos. Investigators did not uncover any conclusive evidence to suggest further, informal flight training.”
As a ramp agent, Russell was a properly credentialed employee of Horizon Air and “did not appear to have violated any security measures or protocols until the theft of the plane,” the FBI found. “As part of his responsibilities as a ground-crew member, Russell had knowledge regarding the operation of the aircraft’s auxiliary power unit (APU) and familiarity with tow equipment and maneuvering.”
Described by friends as a quiet, friendly jokester, Russell worked for Horizon for nearly four years as a ground agent who handled baggage and tidied and de-iced planes. At times, he shared complaints with colleagues about their grueling work and low pay.
“I never thought I would work as a ground service agent,” Russell wrote in one social-media posting. “It seemed like such miserable work and I never could imagine why anyone would want to subject themselves to all the constant noise, gas fumes, and heavy lifting … I would like to dedicate this blog to the life of a ‘ramper’ and highlight the remarkable contrast between our work and rest.”
As part of the investigation, the FBI said it considered information from the National Transportation Safety Board’s review of the aircraft’s flight-data recorder (FDR) that indicated “significant sideslip on the airplane during the final minute of flight.”
Still, “the airplane appears to have remained in control, and the final descent to the ground appears to have been intentional,” the FBI concluded. “If the pilot had wanted to avoid impact with the ground he had time and energy to pull the column back, raise the nose, and initiate a climb.”
Instead, “the column remained in a position forward of neutral and moved further forward about six seconds prior” to the flight-data recording ending at the time of the crash, investigators found.
The aircraft’s cockpit voice recorder “did not capture any significant sounds” beyond Russell’s discussion with ground-control personnel, the FBI added Friday.
“Russell did not make any phone calls while in the cockpit of the aircraft or make any other statements that addressed his motive.”
Shortly after the incident, Joel Monteith, a SkyWest Airlines pilot, called 911 to report that he previously encountered Russell with another baggage handler “pointing and flipping switches” inside an empty jet at the airport about a year earlier.
Monteith, who also recalled to a dispatcher that Russell had been “inside my cockpit” asking questions about the pilot’s preflight routine on at least one other occasion, suggested “maybe this guy had been thinking about doing this for a long time.”