Here’s the latest on the Horizon Q400 that made an unauthorized takeoff from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Friday night and crashed in south Puget Sound.
This is a breaking account from the first 24 hours of coverage after a Horizon Air worker stole a Q400 turboprop out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Friday night, crashing into an island in the south Puget Sound about 90 minutes later. Officials said no other passengers or crew were on board and military jets had been scrambled to fly alongside the plane.
Here’s what we know:
● The man who took a Horizon Air turboprop plane from Sea-Tac International Airport and crashed it on Ketron Island Friday night was Richard Russell, a 29-year-old ground-service agent well liked by coworkers.
● Russell took off from Sea-Tac around 8 p.m. and flew above Puget Sound for about 75 minutes, doing aerial stunts and being trailed by two F-15C fighter jets before crashing. He is presumed dead.
● A 3.5-year employee of Horizon, Russell was born in Key West, Fla., and moved to Alaska at age 7. He lived in Coos Bay, Ore., before moving to Sumner, Pierce Co., in 2015. He did not have a pilot’s license.
● The FBI is leading the investigation into the incident, working with the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies.
● It is believed no one was injured on Ketron Island, a sparsely populated island near Steilacoom, Pierce Co.
Social media users captured videos of the Horizon Q400 plane after it took off from Sea-Tac.
An air-traffic control feed captured the conversation between a controller and the Horizon Air worker who took off from Sea-Tac Airport and crashed on Ketron Island in south Puget Sound. Warning: some might find the following audio disturbing.
Update, 7:10 p.m.:
No family was present at the media conference organized by family at 7 p.m. in Orting, Wash.
Mike Mathews, a friend of Richard Russel and his family, said this is a complete shock to family. They did not take questions.
They thanked authorities, the community, Jesus, friends and family. They asked for space to mourn for “Beebo.”
“He was a faithful husband, a loving son, and a good friend,” Mathews said. “Beebo was loved by everyone because he was kind and gentle to each person he met.”
A printed statement was handed to all media.
“As the voice recording show, Beebo’s intent was not to harm anyone and he was right in saying that there are so many people who loved him.”
Update, 6:16 p.m.:
The family of Richard Russell issued the following news release:
Thank you for your professionalism and respect during this challenging day. We have had many requests for comment on last night’s events and have decided to make a single statement tonight at 7 p.m. at the Orting Valley Fire and Police Station, address below:
401 Washington Ave SE
Orting, WA 98360
Update, 5:50 p.m.:
In his career as a pilot, John Goglia routinely worked with air traffic control officers to land safely on the ground and head into gates.
“They’re very upstanding, conscientious and take their job seriously,” said Goglia, a former board member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and an associate with JDA Aviation Technology. “They have to have a sharp mind to handle a lot of things at once.”
Goglia was impressed by how the ATC officer at Sea-Tac Airport calmly attempted to guide the 29-year-old airline employee who flew a plane without authority to a safe landing. Richard Russell crashed on Ketron Island in south Puget Sound and is presumed dead.
Officers have different zones of control they monitor. In audio recording released from the air-traffic control feed, the officer attempting to direct Russell tried to keep him within his supervision so he wouldn’t be transferred to a different officer.
Doing so reduces interruption and allows the officer time to focus on grounding the individual.
In any emergency, “the whole thing is to try to keep the situation calm,” said Goglia.
That includes situations like these, where a non-pilot takes over control of a plane, terrorist situations, and medical emergencies, such as when the designated pilot has a heart attack.
While Goglia couldn’t speak to the specifics of Friday’s incident, he said officers often rely on counseling provided by their employers to cope with stress after on-the-job crises.
— Michelle Baruchman
Update, 5:18 p.m.:
Federal investigators, Sea-Tac officials and his employer, are scrambling to figure out how Richard Russell managed to steal a 76-passenger Horizon Air turboprop plane, take off from one of the busiest airports the country and fly it around South Puget Sound before a fiery twilight crash Friday evening.
The answers to these questions could eventually alter security procedures not only at Sea-Tac but other airports around the country.
Update, 3:15 p.m.:
A man who answered the door at a Graham home where members of Richard Russell’s family had gathered Saturday said they were awaiting more information before speaking to the media. The man, who did not want to give his name, said Russell’s family is in shock after he reportedly took an airplane from Sea-Tac Airport and crashed into an island in Puget Sound.
As the man spoke to a reporter, other members of the family trickled in.
The large, pastel-yellow two-story house was quiet as family members spoke quietly with each other at the doorstep. Neighbors said the family living at Richard Russell’s registered address are “very sweet people.”
One neighbor, who also did not want to give her name, described Russell’s family as the closest, most stable she’s ever known.
Update, 2:30 p.m.:
The Federal Aviation Administration has issued a statement that it will provide support to local and federal government, and industry partners investigating Friday night’s incident.
“The FAA will provide support to our local and federal government and industry partners that are investigating Friday night’s incident in which someone took an aircraft without authorization from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The FAA implemented a groundstop for Sea-Tac as soon as the aircraft was taken. FAA air traffic controllers communicated with the individual who was flying the aircraft to try to help him land safely. Please contact NORAD about any DoD actions that were taken during this event. Please contact the FBI about the investigation into this event.”
Update, 12:55 p.m.:
Sobered and tired-looking officials from Alaska Air Group, Horizon Air, the Port of Seattle and the FBI took questions from reporters in a conference room at Sea-Tac International Airport on Saturday morning.
They shared some details about how a Horizon ramp agent stole an airplane Friday night but declined to confirm his name and said many details were unavailable. (Multiple sources, including one from law enforcement, have told The Seattle Times that the airline employee was 29-year-old Richard Russell.)
Brad Tilden of Alaska Airlines said the man was a 3 ½-year Horizon Air employee, a ground service agent whose job involved baggage handling and tidying the aircraft, as well as towing aircraft. He said Alaska and Horizon run criminal background checks on employees. Mike Ehl of the Port of Seattle added that additional background checks are run on employees every two years.
Ehl said he didn’t know offhand how many people have the credentials that this employee had.
“He worked a shift yesterday. We believe he was in uniform,” Tilden said. “It was his job to be around airplanes … It was part of this job.”
Tilden said the plane was parked at Plane Cargo 1, in the north part of the airport, and was not going to be used further Friday night. He said he didn’t know whether the plane took off from the taxiway or runway but that the employees “was authorized to be in the area that he was.”
“The individual… was fully credentialed. He had access to that area legitimately,” Ehl said. “It is inside the security fence, so no security violations were committed.”
Tilden said it was “very, very early” to say how “to make this very safe industry even safer in the future,” but he promised Alaska would be “a leader on this issue.”
Asked about wheel and door locks for the airplane, Tilden said airplanes are routinely accessed overnight. He said the general concept in aviation security is to secure the employees and the area, rather than the planes.
“We’ll look at whether improvements can be made,” he said.
Tilden said airplanes don’t have door keys or ignition keys like cars do.
Horizon Air President and CEO Gary Beck said the company has a 24/7 employee-assistance program available to address mental-health needs, but he didn’t know whether this employee had made use of that program.
Update, 12:45 p.m.:
U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal posted on her public Facebook page that her office is “closely monitoring the situation and ready to support officials from SeaTac, Pierce County, FAA, NSTB and the FBI in any way necessary.”
Update, 12:26 p.m.:
Statement from Ayn S. Dietrich-Williams, public affairs officer with the FBI Seattle Field Office:
The FBI is leading the investigation of Friday night’s unauthorized takeoff and crash of a Horizon aircraft. We are working with the NTSB and countless local & state partners to process the scene the crash on Ketron Island. We are going to be thorough, which means taking the time needed to scour the area, delve into the background of the individual believed responsible, and review every aspect of this incident with all appropriate public & private partners. I know there is considerable interest in the subject responsible, but please be patient as we will provide details when we have thoroughly reviewed all available information.
Update, 12:06 p.m.:
Wayne and Sharon Dequer have lived on sparsely populated Ketron Island for five years. They immediately knew something was wrong on Friday night
“We get jets coming over all the time, but this time they came from a different direction, north,” Sharon said Saturday after the island’s ferry docked in Steilacoom.
She said in just moments there was a loud boom and that’s when she saw a mushroom cloud.
“Everyone on the island is paranoid about fires,” Sharon added.
Twin brothers and island residents Rob and Justin Peterson said they were freaked out when they heard about the crash
“I was eating dinner when I started getting texts: ‘Are you OK?’ And I was like yeah, what’s going on?” said Rob. “ ‘A plane crashed on your island.’ ”
The Petersons live part-time on the island. They own The Eleven Eleven bar in Hilltop Tacoma.
“Most people have never heard of Ketron,” said Rob.
Update, 11:50 a.m.:
The airline employee who took a plane from Sea-Tac Airport on Friday night and flew it throughout the Puget Sound region before crashing on an island was 29-year-old Richard Russell, according to multiple sources, including one in law enforcement.
Russell was “a quiet guy. It seemed like he was well liked by the other workers,” said Rick Christenson, an operational supervisor with Horizon Air who retired in May. “I feel really bad for Richard and for his family.”
Update, 11:29 a.m.:
During a news conference Saturday morning at Sea-Tac Airport, Alaska Airlines officials confirmed that the FBI is leading the investigation into the theft of the Horizon Air turboprop. The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration is also participating in the investigation.
Jay S. Tabb, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Seattle Division, said dozens of agents are participating in the investigation. “This is going to take a little time,” he said of the investigation. “Please be patient with the FBI.”
Update, 11:18 a.m.:
Lesley Gordon was walking her dogs along Chambers Bay loop when she saw two jet fighters following a plane. “They were flying all over,” she said in an interview.
After she walked into the forested area, she heard a crash and came out to see a large plume of smoke, “like a mushroom cloud,” over Ketron Island.
About an hour after that, Gordon walked to the ferry at Steilacoom, where she found emergency vehicles crowded on the dock. She said it was almost an hour more before a ferry came so that the emergency vehicles could get out to the island. In the meantime, she said she saw a couple of small, fast police speedboats head toward the island.
The Associated Press has published these aerial images from Saturday morning:
Update, 11:15 a.m.:
Update, 10:51 a.m.:
Alaska Airlines officials plan to hold a media briefing at 11 a.m. at Sea-Tac Airport. Among the speakers will be Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Airlines; Gary Beck, CEO of Horizon Air; and Mike Ehl, director of operations at Sea-Tac.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) released the following statement today from its President Paul Rinaldi on the incident Friday night involving a Horizon Air passenger aircraft:
“NATCA recognizes the great work of all of the air traffic controllers and other Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employees at several Seattle-area FAA facilities that handled this incident. It was an incredible team effort marked by a shared commitment to ensuring the safety of all other aircraft in the vicinity. We also commend the military personnel and first responders involved for their difficult and important work.
“We especially acknowledge the contributions of the controller who worked this aircraft and communicated with the individual at the controls. This controller works at Seattle Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), an FAA facility located in Burien, Wash., just west of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The recordings of the incident display his exceptional professionalism and his calm and poised dedication to the task at hand that is a hallmark of our air traffic controller workforce nationwide.
“All of our NATCA-represented aviation safety professionals are highly skilled and trained to handle these types of emergency situations. Safety is their passion and their focus at all times.
“We are saddened by the loss of a life in this incident, while being thankful that there were no other fatalities or injuries. We extend our condolences to this individual’s family.
“NATCA is working with the FAA and cooperating with all ongoing investigations from all agencies.”
Update, 10:47 a.m.:
Investigators worked to find out how an airline employee could steal an empty plane. The bizarre incident 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 Associated Press. “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.”
The crash happened because the man was “doing stunts in air or lack of flying skills,” the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department said.
Update, 10:24 a.m.:
The crash sparked a two-acre brush fire, which continued to burn on Saturday morning. Firefighter Mike Boltz, with West Pierce Fire & Rescue, said the blaze has been difficult to battle due to limited water.
Firefighters battled the blaze overnight and had it under control Saturday, but there are still some hot spots, he said.
Update, 9:57 a.m.:
Reporter Agueda Pacheco-Flores is in Steilacoom this morning:
Update, 9:38 a.m.:
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) planned to send a team to Ketron Island on Saturday to retrieve the aircraft’s flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder, said Debra Eckrote, Western Pacific regional chief for the NTSB’s Office of Aviation Safety. The recorders will then be sent to NTSB headquarters in Washington, D.C. for examination, she said during a news conference in Steilacoom.
She said the plane was “highly fragmented” and the wings were detached from the fuselage.
Update, 9:23 a.m.:
This chopper video shows firefighters putting out a fire on Ketron Island after the stolen plane crashed there:
(Courtesy of KING 5)
Update, 8:44 a.m.:
Two F-15C fighter jets were trying to redirect the stolen turboprop over the Pacific Ocean when it crashed, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) said in a news release Saturday morning.
The fighter jets didn’t fire on the stolen plane, according to NORAD.
Update, 2:08 a.m.:
Alaska Air has 45 Bombardier Q400 planes in its fleet. Here’s a look at the aircraft that was taken from Sea-Tac Airport and crashed on Ketron Island Friday evening.
Update, 12:05 a.m.:
Alaska Airlines said in a statement posted shortly before midnight that a ground-service agent took a plane from a maintenance area at Sea-Tac. The plane wasn’t scheduled for passenger flights, the airline said.
Agents direct and de-ice planes, and manage passenger luggage, according to the airline.
Update, 12:02 a.m. Aug. 11:
Update, 11:55 p.m.:
FBI Seattle issued a statement on Twitter: “The FBI continues to work with our state, local, and federal partners to gather a complete picture of what transpired with tonight’s unauthorized Horizon aircraft takeoff and crash. We don’t anticipate that further details will be available tonight.”
Update, 11:46 p.m.:
The plane crashed about 9:30 p.m. on Ketron Island, about 40 miles south of Sea-Tac Airport. Here’s a map of the area.
Update, 11:28 p.m.:
An air-traffic control feed captures the conversation between a controller and the Horizon Air worker who took off from Sea-Tac Airport and crashed on Ketron Island in south Puget Sound. Warning: some might find the following audio disturbing.
Update, 11:15 p.m.:
Gov. Jay Inslee has issued a statement regarding the stolen plane:
“There are still a lot of unknowns surrounding tonight’s tragic incident of a stolen Horizon Airline plane from Sea-Tac Airport. The responding fighter pilots flew alongside the aircraft and were ready to do whatever was needed to protect us, but in the end the man flying the stolen plane crashed on Ketron Island. I want to thank the Air National Guard from Washington and Oregon for scrambling jets to keep Washingtonians safe. Those pilots are trained for moments like tonight and showed they are ready and capable.”
Update, 10:58 p.m.:
Horizon Air issued a statement responding to the incident. “We believe it was taken by a single Horizon Air employee and that no other passengers or crew were onboard,” said Horizon’s chief operating officer Constance von Muehlen. “Shortly thereafter, it crashed near Ketron Island by South Tacoma.”
Update, 10:44 p.m.:
Fire crews were responding to the scene of the wreckage on Ketron Island.
Update, 10:21 p.m.:
The person flying the plane was a 29-year-old Horizon Air worker who lived in Pierce County. No one else was on board.
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.