The day after a Horizon Air employee stole an airplane, flew aerial stunts and crashed into a sparsely inhabited island in Puget Sound, airline executives acknowledged that more will have to be done about insider air security.
“Yesterday’s events will push us to learn what we can from this tragedy so that we can help prevent it from ever happening again, at our airline or any other,” Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Air Group, said today during a news briefing at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Authorities said the pilot who made an unauthorized takeoff at 7:32 p.m. PT Friday was a 29-year-old ground service agent for Horizon Air, an Alaska Air subsidiary. “His job was to be around airplanes,” Tilden said.
Ground service agents typically load and unload baggage, tidy up the airplane after arrivals and take on other ground duties. The rogue pilot was authorized to operate the equipment that tows airplanes to and from runways.
Tilden declined to name the employee, but said he was hired by Horizon Air in February 2015. In audio recordings of Friday night’s radio traffic, ground controllers could be heard referring to him as “Rich.” The Seattle Times identified him as Richard Russell, a resident of Graham, Wash.
The airplane, which bore the registration number N449QX, had most recently taken on several flights between Seattle and Victoria, B.C., but it was not due to fly a passenger flight on Friday night. Tilden said the airplane was parked in a maintenance area known as Cargo 1 on the north side of the airport when the employee gained access.
“He did go up there without a purpose other than what he did do,” Tilden said.
Tilden and Horizon Air’s CEO, Gary Beck, noted that the doors of the Bombardier Q400 turboprop plane had no locks, and that the engines can be started without a key, simply by flipping a series of switches and levers.
The current security process relies on vetting employees who come in contact with the aircraft, Tilden said. The employee who stole the plane had cleared Horizon Air’s security requirements, including a 10-year review of criminal records, and had an airport SIDA security badge, Tilden said.
“The system that works is, we secure the employees that are there. The credentialed employees that are there to work on the airplanes, that’s their job, to be around these airplanes and to work on them. … This is aviation in America. The doors of the airplanes are not keyed like a car,” he said.
Mike Ehl, director of operations at SeaTac, said the employee used a pushback tractor to rotate the aircraft 180 degrees before taking it onto the runway. Authorities did not say whether there were any alerts that the plane was being moved without authorization, prior to its appearance on the runway. “These are good questions, but it’s very, very early,” Tilden said.
Tilden and Beck said the employee did not request any of the customary permissions for pushback or runway access.
Once the unauthorized takeoff was detected, SeaTac moved quickly to halt airport departures, Ehl said. About 75 departures were delayed, including about 19 flights that were held up for more than two hours. None of the flights was delayed on the tarmac for more than three hours, Ehl said. Five flights were canceled.
Ehl said arrivals were allowed to continue to clear the airspace, but nine flights were diverted to other airports.
Within minutes, F-15 fighter jets were scrambled from Portland, Ore., to direct the plane away from inhabited areas. NORAD said that the jets were armed, but that they did not fire upon the plane.
The military response was conducted in accordance with Operation Noble Eagle, which was put into effect after the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001. Authorities said there was no indication that the employee had terrorist intent, or that he had accomplices.
“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,” Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said Friday night in a statement.
Authorities don’t yet know how the employee knew as much as he did about flying the plane. In audio clips, he told controllers that “I don’t need that much help. … I’ve played some video games before.”
The employee’s motivation for taking the plane is another big unanswered question. During the flight, he could be heard telling controllers that he was “just a broken guy” with “a few screws loose.” At times, he reveled in the flight, voicing amazement at the sight of the Olympic Mountains and Mount Rainier from the air. When controllers tried to coax him into attempting a landing, he told them “I’m not quite ready to bring it down just yet.”
The plane went through some extreme aerial maneuvers, including what appeared to be a barrel roll captured on video by an observer on the ground.
Eventually, the employee voiced concern about losing fuel, and told controllers that one of the engines was “going out or something.”
Controllers lost contact with the plane at 8:47 p.m. PT, Tilden said. The plane crashed into the southern tip of Ketron Island in south Puget Sound, near Steilacoom and the Chambers Bay Golf Course on the mainland. Flights resumed from Sea-Tac by 9 p.m., but it took until 1 a.m. for operations to get fully back to normal, Ehl said.
Fires burned amid Ketron Island’s brushy terrain overnight, and the employee is presumed dead. The response to the fire was made more challenging by the limited availability of water, but by midday today, the fire was “pretty much out,” said Debra Eckrote, regional chief for the National Transportation Safety Board. About two acres were burned.
No injuries were reported on the ground. The FBI’s Seattle office took charge of the criminal investigation, while the NTSB is assisting in cooperation with local and state partners. “One of the things we’re going to be looking for is the flight data recorders, and then also the recovery of the remains,” Eckrote told reporters.
Ferry traffic to and from Ketron Island was limited to investigators and emergency responders this morning.
Government officials and executives at Alaska Air and Horizon repeatedly said it was too early to draw conclusions about the employee’s behavior or precisely what security changes should be made in response to Friday night’s bizarre incident. But Todd Curtis, an aviation safety expert who’s the founder of AirSafe.com, said the authorities “seemed to be overwhelmed on several issues.”
“An insider threat is one of the more difficult threats to overcome,” Curtis told GeekWire.
The situation gets particularly tricky in the case of ground workers who, unlike mechanics and aircraft crew, aren’t required to get certificates from the Federal Aviation Administration, he said.
“If this guy had evil intent, I’m not sure there’s any way the F-15s could have stopped him from flying into Safeco Field,” Curtis said.
At the time of the incident, Safeco Field was hosting more than 40,000 music fans at a sold-out Pearl Jam concert.
The New York Times is pointing to this 2017 travelogue video attributed to Richard “Beebo” Russell, who was identified by The New York Times and The Seattle Times as the Horizon Air employee who took the plane: