The man who authorities say stole a commercial airliner in Washington state late Friday was identified as Richard Russell.
The 29-year-old worked for Horizon Air, helping to handle luggage and towing aircraft. Authorities say he had worked Friday, and was in uniform, when he got into the cockpit of a Horizon Airlines Bombardier Q400 plane and took off.
He is believed to have died when the plane crashed into Ketron Island, about 48 kilometers (30 miles) south of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, setting off a large forest fire. Authorities say he was suicidal.
A family friend read a statement from Russell’s family Saturday that said they were shocked and devastated.
“It may seem difficult for those watching at home to believe,” the statement said, but Russell was “a warm, compassionate man ... a faithful husband, a loving son and a good friend ... loved by everyone because he was kind and gentle to each person he met.”
On Saturday, U.S. federal investigators began looking into the theft and crash of the airliner.
In an audio recording Friday night, air traffic controllers can be heard trying to persuade Russell to land the airplane.
“There is a runway just off to your right side in about a mile,” the controller says, referring to an airfield at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“Oh man. Those guys will rough me up if I try and land there,” Russell responded, later adding, “This is probably jail time for life, huh?”
‘A broken guy’
Later, Russell can be heard saying, “... Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess.”
Russell has a blog that gives some background on his life, including the fact that he lives with “my incredible wife” in Sumner, Washington.
“He was a quiet guy. It seemed like he was well liked by the other workers,” former co-worker Rick Christenson told The Seattle Times. “I feel really bad for Richard and for his family. I hope they can make it through this.”
Christenson told the newspaper he watched the plane and its dangerous stunts, not knowing that the pilot was his former co-worker. When he saw smoke rising from the woods, he realized the worst had happened.
Constance von Muehlen, Horizon Air Chief Operating Officer, said in a video posted onTwitter: “Our hearts are with family of the individual aboard, along with all of our Alaska Air and Horizon Air employees.” Horizon Air is part of Alaska Air Group.
National Transportation Safety Board Regional Director Debra Eckrote told reporters her agency is helping a team from the Federal Bureau of Investigation do “... preliminary documentation of the wreckage” and search for the plane’s flight data recorders and “the recovery of the remains.”
After the investigation, Eckrote said the wreckage will likely be turned over to Horizon Air, a regional airline, which would be able to “start recovery over the next couple of days.”
The North American Aerospace Defense Command said two F-15 fighter jets were deployed to chase the plane, but the fighter aircraft were not involved in the crash.
“I appreciate the quick reaction and professionalism of our airmen and the entire NORAD team, who were on alert today, as they are every day of the year,” said NORAD Commander General Terrence O’Shaughnessy.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was shut down as the incident unfolded delaying flights.