Authorities investigating major security breach that enabled ‘suicidal’ airline employee to take off with empty plane
The family of an airline employee who stole and later crashed a plane near Seattle have said they are “stunned and heartbroken”, as authorities investigate how the major security breach happened.
The family of Richard Russell – who was a ground services employee with Horizon Air, part of Alaska Airlines – said the actions of “Beebo”, as he was known to them, had come as “a complete shock to us”.
“It may seem difficult for those watching at home to believe, but Beebo was a warm, compassionate man,” said their statement. “He was a faithful husband, a loving son and a good friend. A childhood friend remarked that Beebo was loved by everyone because he was kind and gentle to each person he met.
“As the voice recordings show, Beebo’s intent was not to harm anyone and he was right in saying that there are so many people who loved him.”
The investigation is focusing on how a “suicidal” airline employee was able to steal a plane from Seattle-Tacoma international airport and fly for more than an hour before the crash in which he is believed to have died.
F-15 fighter jets were scrambled to pursue the rogue aircraft after it took off at 7.30pm on Friday and circled south of Seattle before crashing on Ketron Island in the Puget Sound waterway about 25 miles (40km) south-west of the airport. Video footage shows smoke rising from the crash site.
The Horizon Air plane was captured doing large loops and other dangerous manoeuvres. In recorded comments to air traffic controllers, the 29-year-old Seattle-area resident had indicated he intended to crash the plane.
Rick Christenson, a former co-worker, told the Seattle Times Russell was “a quiet guy” who “seemed like he was well liked by the other workers”.
Investigators believe Russell used his security clearance to steal the Q400 turboprop plane from a maintenance area. He had been credentialed to access to planes as part of his work, which included cleaning and towing aircraft, as well as baggage handling. He underwent a background check when he was hired by Horizon in February 2015 and had been subjected to reviews every two years since.
Local police officials described the crash as a suicide unrelated to terrorism. Paul Pastor, the county sheriff, said there was no indication he had intended any harm to others. Pastor said the man “did something foolish and may well have paid with his life”.
The man can be heard on audio recordings telling air traffic controllers that he is “just a broken guy”.
Horizon Air CEO Gary Beck said it was not yet clear how he had learned to start, taxi and fly an aircraft.
“We don’t know how he learned to do that,” Beck said during a Saturday media conference. “Unlike a car, there’s not a key that you stick in and turn,” he said.
The emergency shut down the airport, known as Sea-Tac, and the surrounding skies. Flights were grounded with some passengers tweeting that their plane stopped abruptly on the runway.
The Sea-Tac control tower recognized that an unauthorized takeoff was occurring as the plane taxied to the runway. Russell apparently backed the plane up in order to reach the taxiway, and then proceeded to the runway.
Air national guard fighter jets based in Portland, Oregon, rushed to the area within minutes of the unauthorized takeoff. Arriving ahead of sonic booms, they tailed the airliner over the Chambers Bay golf course, which hosted the US Open in 2015, before the pilot began turning barrel rolls over the Puget Sound.
“It was unfathomable, it was something out of a movie,” witness Royal King told The Seattle Times. “The smoke lingered. You could still hear the F-15s, which were flying low.”
Debra Eckrote, a regional chief with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), described the wreckage of the aircraft as “highly fragmented”. “The wings are off. The fuselage is kinda positioned upside down,” Eckrote said Saturday morning during a media briefing.
“With the daylight, the fire’s out, we’ll be able to identify the parts and pieces of the wreckage and focus on the areas that we’re looking for,” she continued.
Eckrote said fighter pilots and the air traffic controllers worked to bring the plane down without loss of life. The Washington state governor, Jay Inslee, praised the fighter pilots, tweeting: “Those pilots are trained for moments like tonight and showed they are ready and capable.”
The plane crashed in a wooded area of Ketron Island, a speck in Puget Sound believed to be home to 12 people. Firefighters and police boarded a ferry to extinguish the resulting blaze, which burned into the night.
“Our hearts are with the family of the individual aboard, as well as all our Alaska Air and Horizon Air employees,” Horizon Air chief operating officer, Constance von Muehlen, said in a video statement.
Security concerns raised by the crash would likely be part of a months-long investigation into the incident.
“The greatest threat we have to aviation is the insider threat,” Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent and transportation security expert, told the Associated Press. “Here we have an employee who was vetted to the level to have access to the aircraft and had a skillset proficient enough to take off with that plane.”
Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden said the company would review its security procedures.
“It’s natural to ask yourself what procedures were there,” Tilden said during a Saturday media conference. “In terms of improvements we might make as a company or an industry … it’s too early to say.”
- 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