Family, friends recall man who crashed stolen plane as hard-working, kind

SEATTLE — Family members of Richard Russell say they are “stunned and heartbroken” after the airline worker stole a passenger plane Friday from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and was killed when he crashed 25 miles away.

“This is a complete shock to us,” the family said in a statement they released Saturday night. “We are devastated by these events, and Jesus is truly the only one holding this family together right now.”

The statement said Russell, 29, was “a faithful husband, a loving son and a good friend.”

Referring to audio recordings of Russell talking to air traffic control during his hour-long flight, the statement said his “intent was not to harm anyone. He was right in saying that there are so many people who have loved him.”

Russell, a Horizon Air ground service agent for three and a half years, was the only person aboard the plane, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department said. The job of a ground service agent includes directing aircraft for takeoff and gate approach, handling baggage and tidying and de-icing planes, authorities said.

The incident, which the FBI’s Seattle office did not consider terrorism, raises questions about airport security. Investigators headed Saturday to the crash site to recover the plane’s data recorders and Russell’s remains as part of a criminal probe, authorities said.

The 76-seat Horizon Air turboprop plane took off without authorization at 7:32 p.m. local time Friday, with Russell, who was not a pilot, at the controls, officials said.

After Russell talked periodically with air traffic controllers for about an hour, the plane crashed at Ketron Island,officials said.

Video from a witness on the ground shows the plane at one point pulling up for a loop, putting the aircraft upside-down and then pulling back up just feet above a body of water.

Airports nationwide will now look at whether their security procedures need to change, CNN safety analyst David Soucie said. For one, Russell shouldn’t have been able to board the plane alone, he said.

“There is a protocol to not allow anyone singularly to get onboard an aircraft,” Soucie said. “If you’re going to access the aircraft … you make sure that you check with someone else, and that someone else (will confirm) that … you have the right authority to get onto that aircraft.”

Richard Russell was a funny, gentle and hardworking man, said family and a colleague of the airline employee who stole a passenger plane from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and flew it for an hour before he crashed and was killed.

Calling him by his nickname, “Beebo,” Russell’s family released a statement Saturday night that described him as “kind and gentle to each person he met.”

The family said they are “moving forward with the difficult task of processing our grief.”

Co-workers recall hard worker, ‘nice guy’

Jeremy Kaelin said he worked with Russell, a ground service agent at Horizon Air, in 2016. Kaelin remembered “happy, funny” chats with him in the break room.

“He was a nice guy,” Kaelin said. “He was definitely one of the harder working people on the ramps. He was always trying to be faster, but, yet, he still worked in a safe manner.”

Kaelin said Russell “was always great to work with — we got our flights out on time, if not early, most of the time.”

Kaelin said it has been painful for him to hear reports with audio of Russell’s conversations with air traffic control during the flight that ended with him crashing on Ketron Island, about 25 miles southwest of where he took off. At one point, Russell says he is a “broken guy” with “a few screws loose.”

“It just hurts to hear someone you know, and just hear the pain in their voice,” Kaelin said.

Russell, 29, worked for Horizon Air for 3½ years. On Friday around 7:32 p.m., he got in the cockpit of an empty 76-seat Horizon Air turboprop plane and took off without authorization. He flew it for an hour, followed by two armed F-15 jets from Oregon that the military scrambled, before he crashed.