The joyride started just before sunset.
On Friday, Horizon Air ground service agent Richard B. Russell got in one of the airline’s Bombardier Q400 aircraft and took off from Seattle’s SeaTac Airport. In audio recordings released over the internet, Russell can be heard chatting in an upbeat, enthusiastic tone with the air traffic controllers trying to talk him down.
Onlooker John Waldron took video that shows the plane rolling inverted at low altitude, then pulling into a half-loop in a aerobatic high-g maneuver called a “split S.” Whether through skill or luck, Russell managed to pull the plane out of its rapid descent just above the wave tops. F-15 fighter jets scrambled to intercept the Q400, which ultimately crashed into Ketron Island, about 30 miles from the airport.
The incident is bizarre and tragic, but it is not uprecedented. In fact, there have been a number of occurrences in recent decades in which ground personnel made off with aircraft.
May 23, 1969. U.S. Air Force Sergeant Paul Meyer, a 23-year-old crew chief stationed at Mildenhall Air Base in England, stole a C-130 cargo plane and took off. While in the air, Meyer, who’d been married eight weeks before, called his wife and said, “Guess what? I’m coming home!” But it was not to be. An hour and 45 minutes into the flight, Meyer crashed into the English Channel. Meyer had recently been passed over for promotion and had been arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct.
August 22, 1979. Recently fired airline mechanic Armando Nieto Jaramillo, 23, stole a military HS-748 transport plane from Bogotá-Eldorado Airport and crashed it soon after takeoff, killing himself and three people on the ground.
July 4, 1986. Marine Corps lance corporal Howard A. Foote, Jr. stole an A-4M Skyhawk ground attack jet from Marine Corps Air Station El Toro and took it on a 45-minute aerobatic joyride before returning to base and landing safely. Foote was an experienced glider pilot and had undergone 100 hours of simulator flying in the Skyhawk and had hoped to become a military pilot before his ambitions were derailed by health issues. Foote served four and a half months in the brig and later went on to become a test pilot in civilian life.
July 13, 1994. A Russian Air Force engineer made off with an Antonov An-26 transport plane from Kubinka Air Force Base near Moscow. He flew until the plane ran out of fuel and died in the ensuing crash.
May 25, 2003. Ben Charles Padilla, an aircraft mechanic who held a private pilot’s license and was a certified flight engineer, was repairing a 727 airliner in Luanda, Angola for a Florida-based company named Aerospace Sales and Leasing. Padilla and an a recently hired assistant boarded the plane, taxied it to the runway, took off, and head out over the Atlantic Ocean. Neither the men nor the plane has ever been seen again. Some speculated the plane was stolen as part of an insurance scam, or perhaps taken by terrorists who planned to use it as a flying bomb, but the truth remains unknown.
Lastly, we’ve been reporting a lot only on the most famous case of suspected pilot suicide, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, and this weekend’s tragedy bears at least a few similarities. During an exchange with air traffic controllers, Russell mentioned he had some experience using flight simulator software. “I don’t need that much help. I’ve played some video games before,” he said. MH370 captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah was a flight-sim enthusiast who is known to have taken a simulated flight path similar to the one authorities believe the plane ultimately took into the southern Indian Ocean. On the other hand, Russell was reported to have been profoundly troubled, whereas Malaysian authorities were unable to find any evidence that Shah suffered from mental illness or was undergoing any kind of stress in his life.
It’s not yet known exactly what pre-existing psychological conditions Russell may have had, but in the course of his conversation with air traffic controllers he expresses racial resentment. At one point he asks the controller, “Hey, do you think if I land this successfully, Alaska [Horizon Air’s parent company, Alaska Airllines] will give me a job as a pilot?” Told, “You know, I think they would give you a job doing anything if you could pull this off,” Russell replies, “Yeah right! Nah, I’m a white guy.”
Acts of wanton violence by white men bearing racial grievance have been on the rise during the Trump administration, which has embraced white nationalism and adopted openly racist policies.
[Note: A version of this story originally ran on 8/13/18 on Popular Mechanics.]