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Aviation

Suspected Seattle aeroplane thief was traveller, bakery owner

Richard Russell had a monotonous job at the airport moving planes and bags around, but perks of the job included cheap flights

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 August, 2018, 12:20pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 August, 2018, 10:07pm

The airline worker who stole an plane from a Seattle airport on a flight that ended in his death once ran a bakery with his wife and enjoyed the benefits that came with his job to travel the world, social media posts showed. Meanwhile, authorities are investigating how the major security breach happened.

Richard Russell, who liked to be called “Beebo”, was a 29-year-old man living in Sumner, Washington, who was born in Key West, Florida, and moved to Wasilla, Alaska, when he was seven years old, according to a webpage he set up for a college communications class.

He has not been officially named by authorities, but his family and multiple media outlets have reported his identity.

Russell worked for Horizon Airlines, a sister carrier of Alaska Airlines, as a ground service agent who helped baggage handlers and was part of Horizon’s tow team, which moved planes around on the tarmac. It was a job that gave him the perk of “being able to fly to Alaska at my leisure”, he wrote on the page.

In a video posted on YouTube last December, Russell shows luggage coming off and being loaded onto aircraft, and describes what the life of a ground service agent can entail.

“That means I lift a lot of bags, like a lot of bags, so many bags,” he says, but adds that “it allows me to do some pretty cool things, too”.

There are then shots of trips he took, including flying over Alaskan fiords, visiting lavender fields in France, touring in Yucatan, Mexico, and attending a hurling match in Dublin, Ireland.

“It evens out in the end,” he says to end the video.

There was no mention in the social media posts of studying to become a pilot but in some posts he spoke of his Christian religious faith and the possibility of joining the military.

On a SoundCloud site, Russell interviews fellow ground service agents, asking them questions that include: “What was one of your best travel experiences using your flight benefits?”

Authorities say he commandeered an empty Bombardier Q400, 32.6 metre (107 feet) long turboprop aircraft on Friday night from a maintenance area at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. He flew for about an hour, often erratically with attempts at aerial stunts, before crashing on Ketron Island in Puget Sound, about 40km (25 miles) to the southwest.

He appeared to have acted alone, according to the local sheriff’s department.

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.

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

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

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 take-off was occurring as the plane taxied to the runway. Russell apparently backed the plane up to reach the taxiway, and then proceeded to the runway.

Air national guard fighter jets based in Portland, Oregon, rushed to the area within minutes of take-off. Arriving ahead of sonic booms, they tailed the airliner over the Chambers Bay golf course before the pilot began turning barrel rolls over the Puget Sound.

His family members said in a statement they were stunned and heartbroken.

“It may seem difficult for those watching at home to believe, but Beebo was a warm, compassionate man,” the statement said.

Russell’s social media posts often showed him on adventures with his wife, who he said he met in Oregon in 2010.

“We were married one year later, and one month after that we opened a bakery which we successfully ran for 3 years,” he wrote on his webpage. “We consider ourselves bakery connoisseurs and have to try a new one every place we go.”

The couple later moved to Washington state, where he got a job with Horizon.

The Seattle Times quoted Rick Christenson, an operational supervisor with the airline who retired in May, as saying Russell was a well-liked, quiet person.

In his final moments captured by partial recordings of his conversations with air traffic controllers that were published online by Broadcastify.com, Russell spoke calmly and said he was sorry to disappoint people who cared about him and described himself as a “broken guy”.

“Got a few screws loose, I guess,” he says. “Never really knew it until now.”

Additional reporting by The Guardian