Plane Thief Said He Trained on Games, Didn't Plan to Land

Richard Russell, a Horizon Air employee, didn’t have a pilot’s license but referred to his experience with computerized flight-simulator programs.

Richard Russell, a Horizon Air employee, didn’t have a pilot’s license but referred to his experience with computerized flight-simulator programs.


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Some of rogue pilot Richard Russell’s own statements to air-traffic controllers could provide clues to law-enforcement and aviation officials investigating how he managed to perform aerobatic maneuvers in a sophisticated, twin engine airliner over Puget Sound.

Mr. Russell, a Horizon Air employee who stole a 76-seat turboprop from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Friday night, didn’t have a pilot’s license, according to the airline. But during radio communication with air-traffic controllers who were urging him to land, Mr. Russell, 29 years old, repeatedly referred to his experience with computerized flight-simulator programs.

Mr. Russell called them “videogames.” Government and industry air-safety experts said Saturday that the references suggested he had access to personal desktop simulators—perhaps depicting the same Bombardier Q400 model he stole on Friday—that can realistically replicate the performance of aircraft systems, airborne maneuvers and even instructions from air-traffic controllers.

Such simulator software is widely available for purchase and can be run on normal home computers.

According to an unofficial audio recording of Mr. Russell’s radio communication with controllers on Friday, a controller talking on the open channel said that “he is just flying around” and that Mr. Russell could use some help controlling the aircraft. Mr. Russell quickly responded, “I don’t need that much help. I’ve played some videogames before.”

At another point, he said, “I know how to put the landing gear down.” He then added, “I really wasn’t planning on landing it.”

A Horizon Air employee stole a turboprop plane from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Friday night before it crashed on a nearby island. Video: Terri Emge via Storyful

Mr. Russell’s seeming familiarity with at least some of the controls—he specifically mentioned the system that regulates cabin pressure—suggests a strong understanding of cockpit layout and aircraft operations.

But his level of flying skills, including engaging the plane’s autopilot and performing maneuvers that would be daunting even for an experienced Q400 pilot, nevertheless surprised some experts.

Safety consultant John Cox, a former airline pilot, accident investigator and senior safety official for North America’s largest airline pilots union, said it was “hard to believe he flew as well as he did based on a videogame.”

Those who knew Mr. Russell were shocked by his alleged actions, family friend Mike Mathews said in a statement on behalf of Mr. Russell’s friends and family.

“It may seem difficult for those watching at home to believe, but Beebo was a warm, compassionate man,” he said, using a nickname for Mr. Russell. “We are devastated by these events.”

Horizon said Mr. Russell was hired in February 2015 as a ground-service agent and went through criminal background checks every few years. He wasn’t known to have a criminal record. Mr. Russell was allowed to access secure areas of the Seattle airport as part of his job. He was also qualified to help tow aircraft.

Alaska Air Group Chief Executive

Brad Tilden

said it seems Mr. Russell worked his shift as usual on Friday. Horizon is an Alaska affiliate.

But Mr. Russell lacked a pilot’s license, Horizon Chief Executive

Gary Beck

said on Saturday. It isn’t clear where he learned how to start the plane’s engine, a procedure that involves a complex series of switches and levers, he said.

“Commercial aircraft are complex machines,” Mr. Beck said. “I don’t know how he achieved the experience that he did.”

At one point, Mr. Russell asked the controllers whether they thought he could become a pilot himself.

“Hey, you think if I land this successfully, Alaska will give me a job as a pilot?” he can be heard asking in unofficial air-traffic control audio.

“You know, I think they’ll give you a job doing anything if you can pull this off,” someone responded.

He wrote on what appeared to be a website he created that he was born in Key West, Fla., and moved to Alaska when he was 7 years old. He met his wife Hannah while in school in Coos Bay, Ore., in 2010, he wrote.

Mr. Russell wrote that his job as a ground-service employee at Horizon had exposed him to “some pretty incredible things on and off ‘the ramp.’”

He said the work could be monotonous. “I lift a lot of bags. Like a lot of bags. So many bags,” he said in a video posted to YouTube in December. “But it allows me to do some pretty cool things too,” he added, as the video displayed footage and images from his travels to France, Ireland, Alaska, and other destinations.

“It evens out in the end,” he said.

Mr. Russell told the controller he wanted to apologize for what he did to people he cares about.

“I would like to apologize to each and every one of them,” he said. ”I am just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess, never really knew it till now.”

Write to Alison Sider at, Andy Pasztor at and Jay Greene at