Authorities identify airline worker who crashed and died after allegedly stealing and flying a passenger plane
PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — Before he crashed and died, the airline worker who authorities said stole and flew a passenger plane in the Seattle area Friday had a wide-ranging discussion with air traffic control — at one point expressing confidence in his flying ability because “I’ve played some video games.”
In audio recordings posted on Broadcastify, the man can be heard both resisting and seeking help as a controller and others tried to guide the otherwise unoccupied Horizon Air plane to a landing. The man has been identified as Richard Russell, a law enforcement official familiar with the investigation confirmed to CNN on Saturday night.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department described the man as suicidal but did not elaborate. At times Russell was apologetic, expressed his desire to fly toward the nearby Olympic Mountains, worried about lightheadedness and expressed shock at his fuel level’s rapid decrease.
Here are portions of Friday evening’s recordings in the order they occurred. The conversations took place before the 76-seat, twin-engine turboprop plane crashed on Ketron Island, about 25 miles southwest of where he took off at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, also known as Sea-Tac:
‘I have no idea what all that means’
Early in the flight, a controller apparently is giving instructions to Russel while he flies the plane.
Russell: “Yeah, that’s all mumbo ju… — I have no idea what all that means. I wouldn’t know how to punch it in. I’m off autopilot.”
Keeping away from other aircraft
Russell wonders aloud whether a controller is trying to direct the plane toward “jets.”
Controller: “No, I’m not taking you to any jets. I’m actually keeping you away from aircraft that are trying to land at Sea-Tac.”
Russell: “Oh, OK, yeah, yeah, I don’t want to want to screw with that. I’m glad you’re not … screwing up everyone else’s day on account of me.”
How much fuel?
Russell starts commenting on fuel.
Russell: “I’m down to 2,100. I started at like 30-something.”
Controller: “You said you had 2,100 pounds of fuel left?”
Russell: “Yeah, I don’t know what the burn … burnout is like on takeoff, but yeah, it’s burned quite a bit faster than I expected.”
Anxiety about Air Force base
Multiple times, a controller tried to persuade Russell to land at the Air Force’s nearby McChord Field.
Russell: “Oh man, those guys would rough me up if I tried landing there. I think I might mess something up there, too. I wouldn’t want to do that. Oh, they’ve probably got anti-aircraft!”
Controller: “No, they don’t have any of that stuff. We’re just trying to find a place for you to land safely.”
Russell: “Yeah, not quite ready to bring it down just yet. But holy smokes, I’ve got to stop looking at the fuel, because it’s going down quick.”
‘Probably … jail time for life, huh?’
As a controller tries to relay instructions, Russell wonders about jail time.
Controller: If you could, could you start a left-hand turn, and we’ll take you down to the southeast, please?
Russell: “This is probably like jail time for life, huh? I mean, I would hope it is, for a guy like me.”
Controller: “Well … we’re not going to worry or think about that. But could you start a left-hand turn, please?
‘I don’t need that much help’
A controller brings on the radio a pilot who will try to relay instructions.
Controller: “… Apparently a grounds crewman with Horizon, I guess. And uh, right now he’s just flying around, and just he needs some help controlling his aircraft.”
Russell: “Nah, I mean, I don’t need that much help. I’ve played some video games before.”
Immediately after that, Russell implies he’s feeling lightheaded.
Russell: “I would like to figure out how to get this cabin altitude, like, I know where the box is. I would like to get some, uh, make it pressurized or something, so I’m not so lightheaded.”
Controller: “… What’s your altitude?”
There is no immediate answer on the recording.
About a minute later, in response to an apparently unrecorded question from a controller about autopilot, Russell speaks again.
Russell: “Yeah, I don’t know anything about the autopilot. I’m just kind of hand-flying right now.”
‘I don’t want to hurt no one’
The recording later picks up a snippet in which Russell says he doesn’t want to hurt anyone.
Russell: “Damn it … people’s lives are at stake here.”
Controller: “Now … don’t say stuff like that.”
Russell: “No, I told you. I don’t want to hurt no one. I just want you to whisper sweet nothings in my ear.”
Attempts to get him to land
As mentioned, controllers brought a pilot into the conversation to help Russell. The pilot appears to be trying to teach him how to use autopilot.
Later, the controller again tries to persuade him to land at McChord.
Controller: “If you wanted to land, probably the best bet is that runway just ahead and to your left. Again, that’s McChord Field. If you wanted to try, that might be the best way to set up and see if you can land there. Or just like the pilot suggests, another option would be over Puget Sound into the water.”
Russell: “Dang. You talked to McChord yet? ‘Cause I don’t think I’d be happy with you telling me I could land like that, ’cause I could mess some stuff up.”
Controller: “… I already talked to them. Just like me, what we want to see is you not get hurt or anybody else get hurt. So like I said, if you want to try to land, that’s probably the best place to go.”
Talking about the mountains
Russell asks for the pilot who has been giving advice.
Russell: “I wanna know what this weather’s going to be like in the Olympics (mountains).”
Helping pilot: “If you can see the Olympics, the weather’s good. I can see the Olympics from my window, and it looks pretty good over there.”
Russell: “All right. ‘Cause I hit some, it felt like turbulence, around (Mount) Rainier. But there was no clouds, hardly.”
Helping pilot: “That’s just the wind blowing over all the … surfaces there.”
Controller: “If you could, maybe start a left-hand turn, start turning back around, because if you get too close to the Olympics, you won’t be able to hear us anymore.”
Controller: “Turn back around here. Like I said, I just want to keep talking to you, and if you keep going toward the Olympic Mountains, we won’t be able to hear each other.”
A ‘broken guy’ with ‘a few screws loose’
Soon after that, Russell apologizes and says he is a “broken guy” with “a few screws loose.”
Russell: “I’ve got a lot of people that care about me, and it’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this. I would like to apologize to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it until now.”
Russell: “Man, have you been to the Olympics? These guys are gorgeous! Holy smokes.”
Controller: “Yeah, I have been out there. It’s always a nice drive.”
Russell says something that isn’t heard well on the recording.
Controller: Yeah, I bet you do. I haven’t done much hiking over there. But if you could, if you could start a left turn and turn back toward (unintelligible). I know you’re getting a good view there, but if you go too much further in that direction, I won’t be able to hear you anymore.”
‘Going to try to do a barrel roll’
Russell responds by talking about doing a roll.
Russell: “Alrighty. Uh, hey, pilot guy. Can this thing do a backflip, you think?”
Russell: “… I’m gonna land it. Like, in a safe kind of manner. I think I’m going to try to do a barrel roll, and if that goes good, I’m just gonna go nose down and call it a night.”
Controller: “Well … before you do that, let’s think about this. I’ve got another pilot coming … in just a minute or two, and we’ll be able to give you advice on what to do next.”
About six minutes later, a controller asks Russell how much fuel he has left.
Russell: “Oh man, not enough. Not enough to get by. Like 760 pounds.”
Once again, he starts talking about a roll.
Russell: “I’m gonna do this barrel roll real quick.”
Controller: “Well, no need to do that. If you could just start a turn to the right. And then I’ll tell you when to stop turning, and then you can keep it level from there.”
About two minutes go by.
Russell: “I feel like I need to be, what do you think, like, 5,000 feet at least to be able to pull this barrel roll off?”
Eventually, chatter appears to reference a maneuver the stolen plane has just done.
(Video from a witness on the ground shows the plane at one point doing a loop, putting the aircraft upside-down, then pulling up just feet above a body of water. It’s unclear if this roll is what the radio chatter is referring to.)
Helping pilot: “Congratulations. You did that. Now let’s land that airplane safely and don’t hurt anybody on the ground.”
Russell: “Awwww-right. Ah, damn it. I don’t know, man! I don’t know! I don’t want to. I was kinda hoping that was going to be it. You know?”
A minute later, Russell mentions engine trouble.
Russell: “Not for long. I feel like one of my engines is going out or something.”
Controller: “OK … if you could, you just want to keep that plane right over the water, maybe keep the aircraft nice and low.”