A Horizon Airlines ground worker commandeered a regional airliner Friday evening at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) and later fatally crashed the aircraft following more than an hour of maneuvers over Puget Sound.
Coworkers identified the man as Richard "Beebo" Russell, 29, who had worked as a ramp agent for the airline since February 2015. He gained access to the 76-passenger Bombardier Q400 turboprop twin, registered as N449QX, from a maintenance facility at the northeast corner of the airport and departed from nearby Runway 16C at 7:32 p.m. PDT as ground controllers called to the wayward aircraft.
A controller at Seattle Tracon soon established contact with Russell and maintained communications with him throughout the approximately 75-minute flight, frequently imploring him to either attempt to land at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma or ditch the aircraft in the water. Two Oregon National Guard F-15C fighters trailed the flight.
"Think I'm gonna try to do a barrel roll, and if that goes good I'll go nose down and call it a night," Russell told ATC before performing a modified split-S maneuver, with videos posted online showing the aircraft recovering at less than 100 feet over Puget Sound. "I was kinda hoping that was gonna be it, you know?" he said after the maneuver.
The aircraft crashed into a remote forested area on Ketron Island, 25 miles south of SEA, at approximately 8:47 p.m. PDT. Authorities believe Russell was the only person onboard, and that he was killed in the crash that also sparked a brief fire.
On Saturday, National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) president Paul Rinaldi commended the controller and others in their handling of the situation, saying the ordeal demonstrated a "shared commitment to ensuring the safety of all other aircraft in the vicinity."
SeaTac operations director Mike Ehl said the airport implemented a full ground stop shortly after Russell took off, with limited arrivals continuing to clear the busy airspace. The incident delayed approximately 75 departures from SEA, with nine arrivals diverted to other airports and five flights canceled before normal operations resumed before 9 p.m.
Russell had completed a work shift before the incident, said Brad Tilden, president of Alaska Air Group, parent company of Alaska Airlines and its Horizon regional subsidiary. Crews had ferried the aircraft back from Victoria International Airport (YYJ) earlier that day due to an unspecified maintenance issue.