A Horizon Q400 like the one stolen by Richard Russell, the Seatle plane thief.

On the evening of Friday August 10th, 2018, Horizon Air Ground Service Agent Richard Russell approached an unattended Horizon Bombardier Q400 parked in a cargo and maintenance area of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. After using equipment to rotate the plane toward the runway, Russell boarded and started the engines. Soon he was taxiing despite the protests of Sea-Tac Air Traffic Control.

The Seattle plane thief’s flight struck a chord with me. Although I caught the story just a few short hours after Russell ended his life, I deliberately avoided listening to the recordings of his conversation with ATC.

The following week, a couple of coworkers decided to listen to the audio. Walking out of our shared office would have looked strange, so I sat and listened to the Seattle plane thief’s final hour while filing my flight packets.

Once in the air, Russell complemented ATC’s professionalism and cracked jokes as his 75-minute flight took him south and west toward the Olympic Mountains. He jokingly asks if Alaska Airlines will hire him as a pilot if he pulls off a good landing. At one point he asks, “This is going to get me life, isn’t it?”

“Let’s not focus on– let’s just not think about that right now,” ATC replies, because of course it is.

Russell notes that he has a lot of people who care about him, and apologizes to them. Then, as the tower continues to try to convince him to land, he finally says, “I think I’m going to nose down and call it a night.” A short time later the Q400 slammed into Ketron Island, a sparsely populated islet southwest of Tacoma. The medical examiner confirmed that Russell was the sole fatality.

Immediate public reactions showed surprisingly little interest in what motivated Russell to do what he did. Most were reprisals of “but how could this still happen?!” and “what if he’d been a terrorist?” Fear-mongers noted the death toll could have been much higher if Russell had set his sights on the packed concert held at nearby Safeco Field the same night.

Yet Richard Russell clearly wasn’t a terrorist. His choice of landing site shows that he had no desire to harm anyone other than himself. Perhaps he put it best: “I’m just a broken guy,” he told ATC at one point. It’s hard to say if he intended to commit suicide from the start, but by the time he was in the air he knew he was going to die. His story –that of an aviation enthusiast with hidden depression his friends and coworkers never caught on to– reminds me of myself at points past.

Russell managed to pull off maneuvers that most would think impossible in that type of aircraft. I used to work with ATR 72s, a similar twin-turboprop aircraft made by Airbus, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that those aircraft are not built to perform aerobatic maneuvers.

Yet somehow, despite having no formal training, Russell managed to pull off some truly impressive maneuvers during his hour-and-fifteen-minutes in the air. I’d say he definitely earned his wings that night.

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