SEATTLE — He cracked jokes, complimented the professional demeanor of an air traffic controller and apologized for making a fuss.
But the friendly tone of a 29-year-old airport worker who stole a commercial plane Friday night, performing acrobatic stunts before a fatal plunge into a thick island forest, belied his desperate actions.
“I think I’m going to try to do a barrel roll, and if that goes good I’ll go nose down and call it a night,” Richard Russell said from the cockpit, according to a recording of his conversation with the controller.
The Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed Sunday that Russell died in the fiery wreckage, but whether the crash was deliberate or accidental is a question that remains for investigators.
Another is how, nearly 17 years after the 9/11 attacks, someone can take a passenger plane from a major U.S. airport without authorization.
“Last night’s event is going to push us to learn what we can from this tragedy so that we can ensure this does not happen again at Alaska Air Group or at any other airline,” Brad Tilden, chief executive of Alaska Airlines, said at a news conference Saturday.
The plane was a Bombardier Q400, a turboprop that seats 76 people, owned by Horizon Air, part of Alaska Airlines. It had been parked at a cargo and maintenance area for the night after arriving from Victoria, British Columbia, earlier in the day.
Russell, a 3½ -year Horizon employee, worked as a ground service agent. His responsibilities included towing and pushing aircraft for takeoff and gate approach, de-icing the planes and handling baggage.
Authorities said he used a tractor to rotate the plane 180 degrees, positioning it so that he could taxi toward a runway. They said it’s not clear whether he had ever taken flight lessons or used flight simulators, or where he gained the skills to take off. The plane didn’t require a key, but it did require buttons and switches to be activated in a particular order.
His 75-minute flight took him south and west, toward the Olympic Mountains. As a flight controller tried to persuade him to land, he wondered aloud whether he had enough fuel to make it to the Olympics, talked about the beautiful view, said that a lot of people cared about him and apologized for what he was doing.
He complimented the controller, saying, “You are very calm, collect, poised.”
He said that flying was a “blast” and that he didn’t need much help: “I’ve played some video games before.”
“You think if I land this successfully, Alaska will give me a job as a pilot?” he joked.
He also told the controller that he “wasn’t really planning on landing” the aircraft, and described himself as “just a broken guy.”
Authorities sent fighter jets to escort him, and the controller repeatedly tried to direct him to runways. But the plane slammed into tiny Ketron Island, a sparsely populated island southwest of Tacoma.
On Russell’s Facebook page, he said he was from Wasilla, Alaska; lived in Sumner, Wash.; and was married in 2012.
Russell’s family members said in a statement that they were stunned and heartbroken. They said it’s clear that Russell didn’t intend to harm anyone, and that “he was right in saying that there are so many people who loved him.”