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quiet, well-liked Seattle airport worker who stole a plane

Profile emerges of ground service agent, 29, who had passed background checks to get a job at Horizon Air

Richard Russell at his job as a ground service agent. Photograph: Social media/AFP/Getty Images

“I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this.”

Those were among Richard Russell’s last words to a Seattle air traffic controller on Friday night before the 29-year-old airline employee crashed a stolen Alaska Airlines plane into a near-deserted island in Puget Sound. Russell, who was widely identified as the pilot on Saturday morning, was the sole victim in the crash.

Russell’s death and the dramatic moments that preceded it – a passenger plane trailed by F-15 fighter jets cutting rolls against the setting sun – left those who knew him stunned and saddened.

His family members said in a statement they were heartbroken. “It may seem difficult for those watching at home to believe, but Beebo was a warm, compassionate man,” the statement said. “As the voice recordings show, Beebo’s intent was not to harm anyone. He was right in saying that there are so many people who have loved him.”

Details of the apparent suicide were still emerging on Saturday, and no evidence of Russell’s motivations had been publicized beyond statements he made to air traffic controllers trying to coax him down. Officials were quick to point out that Russell, an employee of three and a half years with Alaska Airlines’ regional subsidiary Horizon Air, passed the background checks necessary to handle baggage and clean aircraft.

How Russell, who did not hold a pilot’s license, learned to fly the twin-turboprop Bombardier Q400 that had been parked up for the night is unclear. During exchanges with air-traffic controllers, captured by aviation journalist Jon Ostrower, Russell repeatedly referred to his experience with computerized flight-simulator programs or what he called “video games”.

Simulator software that can run on a home computers and realistically replicates the performance of aircraft systems is readily available, according to air-safety experts. The recordings reveal that when a controller asked Russell if he need help controlling the aircraft, he responded, “I don’t need that much help. I’ve played some video games before.”

In a later exchange, reported by the Wall Street Journal, Russell said: “I know how to put the landing gear down.” He then added: “I really wasn’t planning on landing it.”

Russell took off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at 7.32pm on Friday and flew, tailed by F-15 Eagle jets, until the plane crashed at 8.47pm into Ketron Island, located 25 miles south-west of the airport.

Speaking with the Seattle Times, one of Russell’s former co-workers described him as a quiet, well-liked young man.

“I feel really bad for Richard and for his family. I hope they can make it through this,” retired Horizon Air operations supervisor Rick Christenson told the Times.

In what appears to be his personal blog, Russell described himself as a native of Key West, Florida, who moved to Alaska at age seven. He eventually ended up in Coos Bay, Oregon, where in 2010 he met a woman he married the following year.

The couple ran a bakery for three years before pulling up stakes and heading to the Seattle suburb of Sumner to be closer to Russell’s in-laws.

Writing in the blog two years ago, Russell celebrated his job at Horizon Air. As an airline employee, he wrote: “I’m able to fly … at my leisure.” Russell captured some of his travels to France, Mexico and across the United States in a video uploaded to YouTube in December.

“In this season of life we enjoy exploring as much as possible, whether it is a day (or so) trip to one of Alaska Airline’s destinations, or visiting a new area of Washington,” Russell wrote in the blog.

Russell does not appear to have had any pilot training. Criminal and air safety investigations likely to shed light on what preparation if any he took for the fatal flight are ongoing.

  • In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 and the domestic violence helpline is 0808 2000 247. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14 and the national family violence counselling service is 1800 737 732. In the US, the suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org

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