STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

Official: Man taxied plane before stealing it

Officials give an update on the early stages of an investigation into an airline employee who stole a plane from a Seattle airport, crashed and died.

Posted: Aug 13, 2018 7:49 AM
Updated: Aug 13, 2018 7:49 AM

An airline employee's unauthorized takeoff from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport before dying in a crash will likely prompt a major review of already tightly controlled industry security measures, experts said Saturday.

"This is going to be a major learning event for the industry," CNN aviation analyst Justin Green said. "This is a really big deal."

The biggest question: How did ground service agent Richard Russell -- whose job includes directing planes for takeoff and gate approaches as well as baggage handling and de-icing -- manage to steal a 76-seat Horizon Air turboprop and fly it for nearly an hour Friday night with military jets in pursuit before plunging into a wooded island?

"If this pilot, instead of doing what he ended up doing, had wanted to crash the airplane into downtown Seattle, the fighter (jets) were not going to be able to stop him; air traffic control was not going to stop him," Green said. "This has to be a major, major issue."

The FBI's Seattle office, which is leading the investigation, said the theft and crash of the aircraft weren't considered terrorism.

Still, the episode appears to expose alarming gaps in airport security in the post-9/11 era, according to experts.

Authorities identified Russell as the pilot, a law enforcement official familiar with the investigation confirmed to CNN on Saturday night.

Russell, with 3.5 years on the job, had undergone extensive background checks, was in uniform, had proper credentials and had clearance to be in secure aircraft areas, according to Brad Tilden, Alaska Airlines CEO.

"The system that works is we secure the employees that are there," Tilden told reporters Saturday.

"They're credential employees. They're there to work on the airplanes. ... This is aviation in America. The doors of the airplanes are not keyed like a car. There is not an ignition key like a car. The setup in aviation in America is we secure the airfield."

No one else was believed to be on the plane, authorities said.

Russell, 29, died in the crash. He does not appear to have been a licensed pilot.

Before taking off, airline officials said, Russell used a vehicle known as a pushback tractor to move the plane.

But protocol calls for two people to tow an aircraft, according to CNN analyst and former FAA safety inspector David Soucie.

"They need to really look at their process and procedures and see what fell through the cracks here," he said.

"The fact he was out there by himself, towing the aircraft by himself ... then moving the tracker out of the way, so he could get on the aircraft and move. The fact that all of that happened without even being noticed by anyone on the ground service crew, that is just phenomenal to me."

"Every airport in the country is going to be looking" at whether current protocols need to be changed, Soucie said.

The plane was taken from a maintenance position and was not scheduled for a passenger flight, said Gary Beck, Horizon Air's president and chief executive officer.

The plane took off without authorization around 8 p.m. PT, according to airport officials.

Video from a witness on the ground showed the plane at one point doing a loop, putting the aircraft upside-down, then pulling up just feet above a body of water.

In audio recordings posted on Broadcastify, Russell can be heard talking to air traffic controllers as they try to guide him to land the plane.

At one point, Russell apologizes and says he is a "broken guy" with "a few screws loose."

"I've got a lot of people that care about me, and it's going to disappoint them to hear that I did this," he said. "I would like to apologize to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it until now."

Within minutes of the plane's takeoff, the military scrambled two armed F-15 jets from Oregon to follow it, according to local and airline authorities and two sources with knowledge of the situation. They pursued the aircraft before it went down on Ketron Island, between Tacoma and Olympia.

A ground service agent's responsibilities don't involve touching planes' controls, CNN aviation analyst Mary Schiavo said. But the plane made turns and aerobatic maneuvers that suggested some skill.

"In this plane, he certainly knew how to retract the landing gear; he coordinated both engines, powered them up to get a coordinated takeoff," she said. "A couple of the turns, it looked like what we call in basic flight training a 'coordinated turn,' meaning that he not only used the yoke ... but you also coordinate with the rudders and you do the turns."

She added, "Yeah, he knew how to fly. But ... the air traffic controller had to tell him how to set what they call the 'bugs' -- they're just little sort of little levers, or little notches on your indicator for your heading ... which is kind of basic.

"So, (he) had some knowledge but clearly wasn't a commercial pilot."

Schiavo also said the 900,000 airport workers in the country typically undergo less scrutiny and screening than passengers. In addition, she said, medical checks of airport workers do not include mental health exams.

"We really have to start looking at mental illness and something -- he even said it himself -- he's broken," said Nick Junka, who once worked with the employee who commandeered the plane. "How he got that plane off the ground is astonishing."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 32888

Reported Deaths: 1188
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds259141
DeSoto172418
Madison132635
Jones114049
Neshoba100473
Rankin98213
Harrison96911
Lauderdale92280
Forrest91643
Scott77915
Jackson68917
Copiah62015
Washington61710
Leake58919
Lee56220
Holmes56041
Oktibbeha55227
Wayne54515
Warren53218
Yazoo5236
Lowndes50913
Grenada5067
Leflore50053
Lamar4917
Lincoln48434
Pike45416
Monroe42534
Sunflower4208
Lafayette4094
Covington3755
Attala36523
Panola3646
Bolivar35618
Newton3479
Simpson3453
Adams31518
Tate31011
Pontotoc3046
Marion30012
Chickasaw28719
Claiborne28410
Winston2808
Noxubee2728
Jasper2676
Pearl River26532
Marshall2583
Clay24911
Smith22911
Union21810
Clarke21025
Coahoma2056
Walthall2056
Lawrence1872
Yalobusha1807
Kemper17914
Carroll16811
Humphreys1569
Tallahatchie1454
Calhoun1414
Montgomery1392
Tippah13811
Itawamba1378
Hancock13413
Webster12711
Jefferson Davis1134
Tunica1133
Jefferson1103
Prentiss1103
Greene1059
Amite1043
Wilkinson939
George913
Tishomingo891
Quitman811
Choctaw754
Alcorn742
Perry724
Stone692
Franklin452
Benton420
Sharkey370
Issaquena101
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 46424

Reported Deaths: 1032
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson5486155
Montgomery4246105
Mobile4219136
Tuscaloosa234644
Marshall177011
Madison15548
Lee143337
Shelby135724
Morgan11285
Walker98525
Baldwin9809
Elmore96215
Dallas9109
Franklin90216
Etowah79013
DeKalb7615
Chambers64327
Autauga63612
Butler63228
Tallapoosa60469
Russell5680
Unassigned52226
Limestone5181
Houston5106
Lauderdale5016
Lowndes47821
Cullman4705
Pike4525
Colbert4266
St. Clair4162
Escambia4118
Calhoun3875
Coffee3863
Covington3727
Bullock36810
Barbour3572
Talladega3237
Marengo31711
Hale31521
Dale3020
Jackson3022
Wilcox2948
Sumter28512
Clarke2836
Winston2663
Chilton2622
Blount2511
Monroe2412
Pickens2386
Marion23613
Conecuh2177
Randolph2169
Macon1999
Choctaw19712
Bibb1961
Greene1868
Perry1791
Henry1363
Crenshaw1253
Washington1187
Lawrence1090
Cherokee1037
Geneva840
Lamar801
Fayette721
Clay692
Coosa591
Cleburne391
Out of AL00
Tupelo
Clear
86° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 72°
Feels Like: 93°
Columbus
Clear
78° wxIcon
Hi: 79° Lo: 71°
Feels Like: 81°
Oxford
Scattered Clouds
82° wxIcon
Hi: 85° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 87°
Starkville
Scattered Clouds
77° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 68°
Feels Like: 78°
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather