US investigators and Alaska Airlines officials are trying to figure out how a ground service agent without pilot licence managed to steal an empty turboprop passenger plane from the cargo area of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Friday night and fly it for 75 minutes before crashing it on Ketron Island killing himself, local reports say.
The incident also underscores the need to review security at airports.
Richard Russell, 29, an employee of Alaska’s sister carrier Horizon Air, appears to be either suicidal or foolish as he flew the plane upside down just before it crashed into trees.
The Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor said Russell acted alone and terrorism is ruled out. According to him, Russell’s mid-air stunts and lack of flying skills caused the crash.
The sheriff’s department has started a background investigation on Russell, a Pierce County resident.
Among Russell’s tasks as a ground service agent was towing the aircraft. He must have used his towing skill to properly position the aircraft for the ground run before the take-off.
Gaining entry into the aircraft was easy for him as his job also involved tidying the aircraft.
But it is strange how he managed to taxi the plane on the runway and take off without authorisation. It may take some time for the FBI and National Transportation Safety Board to find answers to how Russell managed to fly out and why he did so.
The dramatic events unfolded after Russell stole the Bombardier Q400 twin-engine turboprop plane around 7.32 pm and took off. The plane was pursued by two F-15 fighters.
The audio recording of conversations between Russell and the air traffic controllers on the ground gives an impression that he either lost his wits or wanted to crash the plane.
In a recorded transcript, Russell calls himself broken and says those who knew him would be disappointed by his actions.
He ignores a traffic controller’s advice not to perform stunts. The aerobatics makes him light-headed. He talks about the beauty of a nearby mountain and indulging in more mid-air manoeuvres.
When the traffic controllers plead with him to land the plane at an airfield, he refuses and talks about possible life sentence for his reckless act. It is as if he has made up his mind to down the plane.
Fortunately, the plane crashed into a sparsely populated island in Puget Sound outside Seattle.