Experts: How, why ‘Beebo’ Russell was able to easily take a plane from Sea-Tac

Aug 13, 2018, 6:58 AM | Updated: 10:56 am
beebo, richard russell...
Richard "Beebo" Russell. (KIRO 7)
(KIRO 7)

On Friday, approximately 45,000 people packed into Seattle’s Safeco Field for a sold-out Pearl Jam concert. At the same time, overhead and just a little south, a commercial airplane was stolen from Sea-Tac Airport by suicidal employee Richard “Beebo” Russell.

RELATED: FBI recovers body, black box from Ketron Island plane crash site

The plane theft prompted two F-15s to be scrambled out of Portland (similar to how jets were deployed on 9/11). Ultimately, Russell, an employee of Horizon Air, crashed the empty turboprop plane onto Ketron Island in south Puget Sound. What’s left are recorded inflight conversation between Russell and air traffic control that portray a “broken guy.” The incident has raised questions around the country about what could have happened if Russell had intentions to harm others — and how, despite massive investments, airport security remains flawed?

“The weak link has always been the low-level workers who have access to the ramp,” said Douglas Moss, former commercial airline pilot and current investigations specialist with AeroPacific Consulting. “And even though those people go through some type of screening, it’s minimal.”

Moss spent 21 years as a commercial pilot, and flew aircraft similar to the Dash 8 Q400 that Russell stole, it seems, with ease. Moss says while there are tight security measures preventing random people from taking a plane out on the tarmac, there are a range of personnel with access most wouldn’t expect — access to places like the cockpit. Such positions are baggage handlers, mechanics, even the caterers and cleaners who come on board between flights.

Modern airplanes

Richard Aboulafia is an aircraft industry consultant. He said he was “baffled” as to how Russell was able to pull it off — assuming there would be safeguards in place. He does note, however, that the specific model of turboprop airplane — the Dash 8 Q400 — is modern, but not too difficult to fly.

“The Q400 has been around for the past 20 years or so,” Aboulafia said. “A turboprop is typically used for 1,000 miles or less — usually less.”

“All planes these days have a fairly high level of automation,” he said. “This is a perfectly modern airplane. If you’re proficient in it, there is nothing special about this plane that would make it hard to fly.”

There’s no ignition key in a Q400 to start the plane. Moss says it does take some technical know-how to actually get the engines fired up and take off. But anyone with a little curiosity and determination can figure it out.

“You can buy flight manuals on eBay, so you can get the instructions one way or another,” Moss said. “Or he may have been able to sit in the cockpit and watch a mechanic start the engines for an engine run. And he could have asked the mechanic, ‘How do you start this thing? And let me watch you.’ But he probably got enough information from his coworkers. They didn’t volunteer to allow him to do what he did, but as a natural conversation — ‘How do you start the engines and show me how’ — isn’t that far fetched.”

Russell did, of course, manage the hard part. He not only got the engines going, but towed the plane 180-degrees from where it was parked in order to maneuver it into a position to taxi onto the runway and take off.

“Flying the airplane is really easy,” Moss said. “Anyone can sit down with a Microsoft flight simulator and fly an airplane without crashing it. Being in the actual airplane is not a whole lot different.”

Indeed, recordings of Russell’s inflight conversation with the control tower indicate he picked up some piloting knowledge from video games.

“I wouldn’t know how to land it, I wasn’t really planning on landing it,” Russell said. “…It’s a blast man, I’ve played video games before, so I know what I’m doing, a little bit … hey, pilot guy can this thing do a black flip thing? … Think I’m going to try to do a barrel roll, and if that goes good I’m just going to nose down and call it a night.”

Russell crashed the airplane away from any crowds or stadiums with no seeming desire to hurt anyone else. Ketron Island where the plane crashed has about 12 residents. The plane ended up in a wooded, uninhabited area.


One thing to understand is that it was normal for Russell to be where he was, with access to airplanes.

“He was allowed to be where he was, so it’s not a security breach, per say,” Moss said. “He was a trusted individual. But when someone behaves with a suicidal nature, there’s not really a whole lot that anyone, or any company can do. Whether it’s a bus driver, a truck driver, a taxi driver, an airline pilot, or a ramp service worker.”

Airline security experts differ on that point. There will certainly be many calls for protocol changes to prevent a low-level airport worker from stealing a commercial plane in the future.

“This is a freak incident,” Aboulafia said. “I’ve never heard of this happening. It can happen, but I’m sure they’ll be looking into this further and seeing how it can be prevented in the future. Given the lack of any historical data that has taken place, I would say you should not be worried.”

“As a result of this, they are going to look at what procedures can be put in place to prevent it from happening it again,” he said. “I don’t think there is any cause for alarm at all.”

Other factors and Beebo Russell

However, Moss points to a few factors that may have led Richard Russell to a point where he no longer saw any hope in his future.

“Airlines do everything possible to reduce costs indiscriminately,” Moss said. “They won’t pay anyone any more than they think they have to. He was complaining on the radio that he wasn’t making $15 an hour like some people at the airlines.”

“Minimum wage, we’ll chalk it up to that,” Russell said on inflight recordings with the control tower. “Maybe that will grease some gears with the higher ups.”

If pay was a factor in Russell’s actions, it would have been exacerbated by the fact the Puget Sound region has a growing unaffordability crisis with many being priced out.

“I could see his financial problems and his future was causing him a lot of stress internally that he was keeping to himself,” Robert Reeves told KIRO 7.

Reeves worked with Russell for Horizon at Sea-Tac. He worked there for about four months, citing that he was overworked and underpaid.

“As the years go by and they are expecting more and more and more out of you,” Reeves said. “You could be at the end of your shift but they still want you to go work another flight … he was one of the hardest working people I met at Horizon.”

But Russell talked about a range of things while flying, including that he was a “broken guy” with “some screws loose.” Beyond that it’s clear that an unaddressed mental health crisis played a huge role in Russell’s final, fatal act.

Moss says that every major airline has an Employee Assistance Program, which can provide counseling or some kind of professional help during a time of crisis. But it’s a huge risk for an employee to actually pick up the phone, call human resources, and admit they need help.

“Some airlines do that very well,” Moss said. “They advertise their services, they make sure everybody knows about these services and reinforce the idea that people can come in and get help without impacting their career. ”

“Other airlines, they don’t have such good programs,” he said. “They treat it more as a punitive thing. A lot of people, especially pilots — a pilot would rarely go in and seek counseling. Because if a pilot showed symptoms or expressed depression, then they would be grounded immediately, lose their pay, use sick pay for whatever time they have. But for the next year or two they would go unpaid and have a possibility of never going back to work. It’s real tough and a gamble. You’re gambling that you won’t have a possibility of getting your job back.”

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(Photo Illustration by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)...
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Experts: How, why ‘Beebo’ Russell was able to easily take a plane from Sea-Tac