‘Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose’ - Seattle crash pilot’s final conversation

Family of Richard ‘Beebo’ Russell say they are stunned and heartbroken

Audio recordings of a conversation between an air traffic controller and an airline worker that stole an empty plane from Seattle's airport shed light on the final moments before the stolen plane crashed on a remote island near Seattle.

 

The family of an airline employee who stole and later crashed a plane near Seattle have said they are “stunned and heartbroken”, as authorities investigate how the major security breach happened.

The family of Richard Russell - who was a ground services employee with Horizon Air, part of Alaska Airlines - said the actions of “Beebo”, as he was known to them, had come as “a complete shock to us”.

“It may seem difficult for those watching at home to believe, but Beebo was a warm, compassionate man,” said their statement. “He was a faithful husband, a loving son and a good friend.”

A childhood friend remarked that Beebo was loved by everyone because he was kind and gentle to each person he met.

This frame grab taken from footage filmed by bystander John Wauldron at Chambers Bay Park and Golf Course shows the airplane making an unlikely upside-down aerial loop. Photo John Wauldron/AFP
This frame grab taken from footage filmed by bystander John Wauldron at Chambers Bay Park and Golf Course shows the airplane making an unlikely upside-down aerial loop. Photo John Wauldron/AFP

“As the voice recordings show, Beebo’s intent was not to harm anyone and he was right in saying that there are so many people who loved him.”

In recordings of Russell speaking to air traffic controllers during the flight: he says: “I would like to apologise to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it until now.”

The investigation is focusing on how a “suicidal” airline employee was able to steal a plane from Seattle-Tacoma international airport and fly for more than an hour before the crash in which he is believed to have died.

F-15 fighter jets were scrambled to pursue the rogue aircraft after it took off at 7.30pm on Friday and circled south of Seattle before crashing on Ketron Island in the Puget Sound waterway about 40km south-west of the airport. Video footage shows smoke rising from the crash site.

The Horizon Air plane was captured doing large loops and other dangerous manoeuvres. In recorded comments to air traffic controllers, the 29-year-old Seattle-area resident had indicated he intended to crash the plane.

Rick Christenson, a former co-worker, told the Seattle Times Russell was “a quiet guy” who “seemed like he was well liked by the other workers”.

Investigators believe Russell used his security clearance to steal the Q400 turboprop plane from a maintenance area. He had been credentialed to access to planes as part of his work, which included cleaning and towing aircraft, as well as baggage handling. He underwent a background check when he was hired by Horizon in February 2015 and had been subjected to reviews every two years since.

Local police officials described the crash as a suicide unrelated to terrorism. Paul Pastor, the county sheriff, said there was no indication he had intended any harm to others. Pastor said the man “did something foolish and may well have paid with his life”.

The man can be heard on audio recordings telling air traffic controllers that he is “just a broken guy”.

Horizon Air CEO Gary Beck said it was not yet clear how he had learned to start, taxi and fly an aircraft.

“We don’t know how he learned to do that,” Mr Beck said during a Saturday media conference. “Unlike a car, there’s not a key that you stick in and turn,” he said.

The emergency shut down the airport, known as Sea-Tac, and the surrounding skies. Flights were grounded with some passengers tweeting that their plane stopped abruptly on the runway.

The Sea-Tac control tower recognised that an unauthorised takeoff was occurring as the plane taxied to the runway. Russell apparently backed the plane up in order to reach the taxiway, and then proceeded to the runway.

I got a lot of people that care about me and it’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this

Air national guard fighter jets based in Portland, Oregon, rushed to the area within minutes of the unauthorised takeoff. Arriving ahead of sonic booms, they tailed the airliner over the Chambers Bay golf course, which hosted the US Open in 2015, before the pilot began turning barrel rolls over the Puget Sound.

Debra Eckrote, a regional chief with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), described the wreckage of the aircraft as “highly fragmented”. “The wings are off. The fuselage is kinda positioned upside down,” Ms Eckrote said on Saturday morning during a media briefing.

Ms Eckrote said fighter pilots and the air traffic controllers worked to bring the plane down without loss of life. The Washington state governor, Jay Inslee, praised the fighter pilots, tweeting: “Those pilots are trained for moments like tonight and showed they are ready and capable.”

The plane crashed in a wooded area of Ketron Island, a speck in Puget Sound believed to be home to 12 people. Firefighters and police boarded a ferry to extinguish the resulting blaze, which burned into the night. “Our hearts are with the family of the individual aboard, as well as all our Alaska Air and Horizon Air employees,” Horizon Air chief operating officer, Constance von Muehlen, said in a video statement.

Recordings: ‘It’s a blast, man’

In recordings of Russell’s remarkable conversation with air traffic controllers he speaks admiringly of the Olympic Mountains at sunset, complains of lightheadedness and muses about potential prison time if he were to land the plane safely. At one point, an air traffic controller asked if Russell felt comfortable flying. “It’s a blast, man,” Russell replied. “I played video games before so, you know, I know what I’m doing a little bit.”

At times, Russell was contrite. “Man, I’m sorry about this. I hope this doesn’t ruin your day,” he said to the controller, adding that he was grateful to be kept away from other aircraft.

“I’m glad you’re not, you know, screwing up everyone else’s day on account of me.”

He said he hoped to have a “moment of serenity” in the air but lamented that the sights “went by so fast.” Videos taken by onlookers during Russell’s flight showed the plane doing deep dives, broad loops and at least one upside-down roll. At the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, thousands of passengers in the terminal or left sitting in planes on the tarmac were delayed. “I got a lot of people that care about me and it’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this,” Russell could be heard saying. “I would like to apologise to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it until now.”

Air traffic controllers, tried to convince him to land the plane. “There is a runway just off to your right side in about a mile,” the controller said, referring to an airfield at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. “Oh man. Those guys will rough me up if I try and land there,” Mr Russell responded, later adding: “This is probably jail time for life, huh?” - Guardian