SEATAC, Wash. – At first, the air traffic controllers did not seem to be worried when Richard Russell climbed into the cockpit of a small passenger plane on Friday night, winding his two turboprops and rolling from his parking lot near a cargo area.

Salespeople like Mr. Russell sometimes fly back and forth between places at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and other fields without checking the tower as needed.

This time, however, the 29-year-old, untrained like a pilot but with a fondness for airplane video games, headed for the runway, opening the throttle and roaring in the air, without clearance or a flight plan. It was not clear if the theft was an amusement ride, kidnapping, terrorist attack, or suicide mission.

Mr. Russell flew for about an hour toward Tacoma over Puget Sound, a meandering journey interrupted by a roll and a flip and a soundtrack of quiet, sometimes wistful radio exchange with controllers trying to figure out what his motives were crashed into his death.

In Mr. Russells more than three years at

Alaska Air Group
. Inc & # 39; s

ALK -0.82%

Commuter Arm, Horizon Air, his job at times required him to know how to control the aircraft, use his brakes, start his electric generator, and use his radios to communicate with air traffic control. But it did not include launching the engines of an airplane. He did just that on Friday.

An air traffic controller radioed the plane as it moved from a cargo area to the runway without approval.

"The Dash 8 at 16C, say your call sign," said the controller, regardless of the air traffic control recorded radio traffic. There was no answer as the plane continued to roll.

The Q400 took off at 19:32. PDT.

The military was quickly alerted. Less than 10 minutes later, two F-15 jet fighters from Portland, Oregon, climbed and began tracking the plane, ready to launch it if necessary, as a senior military commander trusted the timeline.

Although Russell did not have a pilot's license, according to his employer, he cleverly performed a series of aerobatics and steep dives with the 76-seat turboprop airplane, which left experts and spectators in awe, movements that would have been dreadful to an experienced Q400 rider ,

Horizon CEO

Gary Beck

called the trains "incredible maneuvers through the plane … I do not know how he got the experience he did."

Mr. Russell's unlikely talent was one of many elements that added an extraordinary quality to the tragic and frightening episode.

It was also shocking, he pointed out, that he had learned to fly from computer simulations.

"I do not need much help, I've played some video games," Russell told the air traffic controller. Such computer-aided flight simulator software could have represented the same work turboprop model he stole on Friday, air security officials from the government and industry said. It is widely available for purchase and can be run on normal home computers.

At another point, he said, "I know how to take off the landing gear." Then he added, "I really did not mean to land it."

He also indicated familiarity with at least some of the controls and more than a cursory understanding of cockpit layout and aircraft operations, including a specific reference to the system that governs cabin pressure.

At other times, Mr. Russell seemed to be over his head. I do not know what that all means, I would not know how to hit it, "he once said to the controllers.

The drama took place in the sky above Puget Sound south and west of Seattle, while people on the ground watched it move and dive. Sometimes he was afraid that he would break into them, as it says on social media.

The controllers attempted to instruct Mr. Russell to stay low, avoid populated areas, and try to land the plane, according to unofficial air traffic control. They brought in a captain to help Mr. Russell through the flight commands.

Air traffic control lost contact with him at 8:47 pm local time, according to Alaska Air CEO

Brad Tilden.

Horizon is an Alaska subsidiary.

Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor said the plane crashed on a small, sparsely populated offshore island in southern Puget Sound. On Saturday at 13.38 local time. Mr. Russell was pronounced dead.

Some who knew Mr. Russell were shocked by his actions.

"It seems difficult for those who believe at home, but Beebo was a warm, compassionate man," family friend Mike Mathews said in a statement on behalf of Mr. Russell's friends and family and used a nickname for Mr. Russell. "We are shaken by these events."

Horizon said that Mr. Russell was hired as a groundhandler in February 2015 and conducted a criminal investigation every few years. It was not known that he had a criminal record.

The former Horizon supervisor described Mr. Russell as a friendly employee with a can-do attitude. "He was very good," said the former supervisor. "He was always out there, you never had to look for him."

DeAndre Halbert, who worked with Mr. Russell until eight months ago, said that Mr. Russell was well balanced and did not seem particularly interested in becoming a pilot. He was known for being intelligent and literal and constantly reading a novel.

In a video he made in December and posted on YouTube and a personal website, Russell said his job could be monotonous. "I lift a lot of bags, like, lots of bags, so many bags," he said. "But I can do pretty cool stuff too," he added as the video showed footage and pictures of his travels to France, Ireland, Alaska and other destinations.

"It balances out in the end," he said.

Mr. Russell told the controller he wanted to apologize for what he did to the people he cares about.

"I want to apologize to each one of them," he said. "I'm just a broken guy, I've loosened a few screws, I think, never really knew it before."

Write on Andrew Tangel at, Alison Sider at, Andy Pasztor at and Jay Greene at

Published in the print edition of August 13, 2018 as "Aircraft Thief Had No Training, But Videogames".



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