Seattle Airport Employee Who Stole And Crashed Plane Identified

The name of the airline worker who stole an empty airplane from Seattle–Tacoma International Airport in a security scare that caused the scrambling of U.S. fighter jets and ended when the plane crashed onto a sparsely populated island has been revealed.

He's been identified as 29-year old Richard “Beebo” Russell — a Horizon Air employee described by friends and family as "an avid traveler, a high-school football standout and Christian youth leader who once operated an Oregon bakery with his wife," according to the Seattle Times.

Russell went down in a fiery crash of the Bombardier Q400 turboprop on Ketron Island after pulling off a barrel roll and coming within feet of the water in what ultimately appeared to be a highly theatrical suicide. He spoke of family and friends and a disappointed life to the air traffic controller who spent the hour trying to talk him into landing: “It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this. 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,” the now viral audio of the cockpit call captures Russell as saying. 

Investigators on Saturday not only sought further indicators of a precise motive and the events leading up the ground worker's unauthorized entry onto the plane, but began picking through the crash sight to recover the aircraft's flight-data recorder and cockpit voice recorder.

Richard Russell, a 29-year-old ground-service agent. YouTube screengrab via Seattle Times

“He was a quiet guy. It seemed like he was well liked by the other workers,” Rick Christenson, a recently retired operational supervisor with Horizon Air, told the Seattle Times. “I feel really bad for Richard and for his family. I hope they can make it through this.”

Russell, who it turns out is believed to likely have had some basic formal flight training but no pilot's license, worked as a member of Horizon's tow team, responsible for moving airplanes on the tarmac with a tow tug vehicle, and he also handled baggage transport for the airline. 

Other details of his life to emerge include that he was very active in church as a youth director, and spent most of his later childhood growing up in Alaska before moving to Oregon with his wife in 2010 where both attended college. Former co-workers have described Russell as “super gregarious, funny, a hard worker.”

Some former and current co-workers of Russel's were actually on-hand Friday night when they saw the plane flying over the area with two National Guard F-15 fighter jets followed closely behind. “We got binoculars and were watching him. He was flying real strange, hard banks, real radical flying for a Dash-8,” Christenson described.

When the plane nose-dived toward the water at one point, Christenson relates of the moment, “We were all screaming, ‘Oh my god, oh my god,’ and I was yelling, ‘Pull up, pull up,’” Christenson said. “Everybody’s stunned … that something like this would happen,” Christenson said. “How could it? Everybody’s been through background checks.”

Local news sources describe Russell's family as being in a state of shock, but the family released a statement late on Saturday calling him a "warm, compassionate man."

”This is a complete shock to us,” the statement read. “As the voice recordings show, Beebo’s intent was not to harm anyone and he was right in saying there are so many people who loved him.”

"He was a faithful husband, a loving son, and a good friend," the statement continued. "A childhood friend remarked that Beebo was loved by everyone because he was kind and gentle to each person he met."

Ketron Island, soon after the crash, with smoke rising above the impact site. Image source: AP 

Airline and law-enforcement officials on Saturday provided some level of details as to how the ground worker was able to board and steal the plane. 

“He worked a shift yesterday. We believe he was in uniform,” said Alaska Air Group chief executive officer Brad Tilden, which is the parent company to Horizon Air. “It was his job to be around airplanes.” The company identified Russell as having been their employee for nearly four years

The airline company spokesman further identified that Russell himself towed the aircraft into position so he could easily taxi the aircraft in preparation for takeoff. Notably, the spokesman confirmed the traffic control tower “did know this was an unauthorized departure.”

Horizon's CEO Gary Beck was quoted as noting that Russell had pulled off some “incredible maneuvers” once airborne, unlikely for someone who's not believed to have had a pilot's license. “Commercial aircraft are complex machines,” he said. “So I don’t know how he achieved the experience that he did.”

FBI’s Seattle division, the lead investigating team at the scene of the crash, is reportedly attempting to definitively rule out whether or not Russel had help either on the plane or before taking off. When an FBI official was asked about Russell's mental state, he responded, “It’s way too early to comment on that. I’m sorry.”