SEATTLE — The story was as bizarre as it was tragic: An airline worker who had no business being in a cockpit somehow took off from a major airport in a turboprop passenger plane, dipped and soared in the skies above the Seattle area, and then crashed into an island in Puget Sound.
The man — a ground service agent identified as Richard B. Russell, according to a law enforcement official — took off around 7:30 p.m., according to authorities. He chatted sometimes calmly and sometimes in a frenzied stream of consciousness with air traffic controllers who tried to guide him to a safe landing, as jets from the Air National Guards of Washington and Oregon flew alongside him, ready to take action.
The plane came down in a fiery crash on Ketron Island, about 30 miles from the airport. No one else was believed to be on board, and officials confirmed Russell was killed.
It was not immediately clear how Russell, who worked for Horizon Air, a subsidiary of Alaska Airlines, had managed to take off in the plane. But Debra Eckrote, chief of the northwest regional office of the National Transportation Safety Board, said on Saturday that it was conceivable that a ground service agent would be able to start an airplane.
“They probably do have at least a basic understanding on how to start the aircraft,” she said.
At a news conference Saturday, the chief executive of Horizon Air Industries, Gary Beck, said Russell did not have a pilot’s license.
“Commercial aircrafts are complex machines,” Beck added. “I don’t know how he achieved the experience he did.”
Alaska Airlines officials said Russell had worked for Horizon for 3 1/2 years, and was responsible for handling luggage and cargo and for towing aircraft. He had worked his shift on Friday.
In recordings of his remarkable conversation with air traffic controllers, Russell said he hoped to have a “moment of serenity” in the air but lamented that the sights “went by so fast.”
“I got a lot of people that care about me and it’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this,” Russell could be heard saying. “I would like to apologize to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it until now.”