Negotiating with a ground-crew member flying upside down above Puget Sound is normally not part of the job description. Yet that was the scenario Friday night, after Horizon Air employee Richard Russell somehow managed to take off in an empty plane.
The air traffic controllers for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport are trained to perform under pressure. Every day, they guide scores of planes through the wind and rain.
But negotiating with a ground-crew member flying upside down above Puget Sound is normally not part of the job description. Yet that was the scenario Friday night, after Horizon Air employee Richard Russell somehow managed to take off in an empty plane.
An as-yet-unnamed air traffic controller coolly sought to reason with Russell, until he crashed into sparsely populated Ketron Island. Two Portland-based F-15 fighter jets were scrambled to tail him.
“I spent more than 30 years controlling airplanes, and I never had that happen,” said Randy Bachmann, a retired controller who spent nearly 20 years handling traffic at Sea-Tac. “I had baggage carts blow across taxiways and other things happen. But I never had a rogue airplane. That’s one in a million.”
With the Horizon plane in midair for more than an hour, the controller tried to steer Russell away from other planes and bring him down without hurting anyone on the ground. In audio recordings, the controller – assisted at times by colleagues – sounds remarkably collected.
“No, I’m not taking you to any jets. I’m actually keeping you away from aircraft that are trying to land at Sea-Tac,” he said at one point.
“We’re just trying to find a place for you to land safely,” the controller added, later telling Russell not to worry about ending up in jail.
Walt Smith, a former senior Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) official, said the controller used a “calm, prudent and mature voice to help settle down the individual” and said the Sea-Tac personnel “performed brilliantly to mitigate risks,” crafting a plan at breakneck speed.
In a statement Saturday, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association praised the controller. A spokesman declined to identify him, citing the active FBI investigation of the incident.
“The recordings of the incident display his exceptional professionalism,” controller-association President Paul Rinaldi said.
Most air traffic controllers work for the FAA. They must complete a months-long program at the FAA Academy and then undergo additional on-the-job training.
More than a third of Bachmann’s academy class didn’t make the cut, he recalled.
“They put you in tense situations,” Bachmann said. “If you’re not able to make a quick decision and roll with it, then you’re not going to do well.”
The controller who dealt with Russell works at Seattle Terminal Radar Approach Control, the controller association said. Their job is to make sure planes don’t collide as they travel between the ground and about 15,000 feet. Different personnel guide pilots from gates to takeoffs and from landings to gates.
In his career as a pilot, John Goglia routinely worked with controllers.
“They’re very upstanding, conscientious and take their job seriously,” said Goglia, a former board member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
Goglia was impressed by how the Sea-Tac controller responded. In any unexpected incident, from a terrorist takeover to a medical emergency, “the whole thing is to try to keep the situation calm,” the former pilot said, mentioning that controllers can need help processing stress.
The controller shouldn’t blame himself for the crash, said James Kreiger, a former air-traffic manager at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
“The individual obviously was having some issues,” Kreiger said. “He did an extraordinary job, in light of everything.”