BREMERTON, Wash. — The Coast Guard is coordinating with officials from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department and federal investigators as the probe continues into Friday night’s mysterious crash of a stolen passenger plane on a remote Puget Sound island.
The Coast Patrol Boat Swordfish arrived at Ketron Island in rural Pierce County around 7 a.m. local time to enforce a safety zone around the crash site, where a blaze erupted shortly after an anguished ground services employee of Horizon Air flew the twin-turboprop Bombardier Q400 to his death.
The lone pilot, who told air controllers that he had never operated an aircraft before, stole the plane around 8 p.m. Friday from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with no other passengers on board.
His conversations over the next 90 minutes with the airport tower were broadcast on an open frequency, with him describing doing barrel rolls and running short on fuel.
The pilot, 29-year-old Richard Russell, shrugged off attempts by the tower to divert him to the landing strip at nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord, saying “those guys would rough me up if I tried to land there.”
County authorities have described the incident as a likely suicide.
A crew from a 45-foot patrol boat were the first Coast Guard rescuers on the scene last night, but the fiery crash occurred in a wooded section of Ketron Island and not on water, according to Coast Guard Public Affairs Chief Petty Officer Chad Mosley.
Mosley told Navy Times that the crew set up a safety zone around the island alongside a Pierce County marine craft, with the Swordfish relieving them Saturday morning.
Shortly after Russell absconded with the plane, North American Aerospace Defense Command scrambled two F-15C Eagles from Portland at supersonic speed to intercept him. The “Redhawks” from the 142nd Fighter Wing of the Oregon Air National Guard flew alongside the twin-engine plane but did not down it.
“NORAD fighters were working to redirect the aircraft out over the Pacific Ocean when it crashed on the southern tip of Ketron Island in the southern end of Puget Sound,” NORAD said in a statement. “NORAD fighters did not fire upon the aircraft. The event was subsequently passed to local rescue and law enforcement.”
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department took to the social media site Twitter to say the fighters “made it within a few minutes of theft of plane" and kept it away from densely populated areas.
“They may not admit for a few days. But is true,” the message said.
Pierce County officials have turned the investigation over to FBI agents in Seattle.
Because the case involves a stolen plane, the National Transportation Safety Board has surrendered control of the investigation to the FBI, according to Debra Eckrote, NTSB’s Western Pacific region chief.
“The FBI has a team that’s coming in, and we’re all going to go out here shortly and start doing some primary documentation of the wreckage,” she told reporters during a Saturday morning news conference. “One of the things we’re going to be looking for is the flight data recorder and also the recovery of the remains.”
Ekrote described the crash site as “highly fragmented,” with the fuselage upside down. Both the fire and darkness kept emergency crews from fully detailing the wreck, but she said the flames had been extinguished overnight.
Ekrote characterized Russell’s behavior as “very unusual" but said it was a “little too early” to fathom his motive for stealing the plane.
“He’s ground support so, you know, they have access to aircraft,” she said.
Russell on Friday had told air traffic controllers, “I’ve played some video games before,” but also asked for help to stabilize the cabin pressure so he wouldn’t feel so light-headed.
“I’m just a broken guy,” he said. “I’ve got a few screws loose, I guess. I never really knew it, until now.”
Ekrote said that Horizon Air, which operated the aircraft for Alaska Airlines, would be sending employees to assist investigators.
Alaska Airlines officials have not returned messages placed by Navy Times, but they released a statement on the corporate website.
“We are still gathering facts, but at this point we understand there was only one person aboard, an employee of Horizon Air, who was operating the aircraft. I want to share how incredibly sad all of us at Alaska are about this incident. Our heart is heavy for the family and friends of the person involved," said Alaskan Airlines Chief Executive Officer Brad Tilden.
“We’re working to find out everything we possibly can about what happened, working with the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Transportation Safety Board. We are giving those investigators our full support and cooperation."
In a written statement emailed to Navy Times, Paul Rinaldi, the president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Air Traffic Controllers Association praised FAA employees at multiple facilities for their “incredible team effort” in responding to the plane’s flight.
“We especially acknowledge the contributions of the controller who worked this aircraft and communicated with the individual at the controls," Rinaldi wrote. “This controller works at Seattle Terminal Radar Approach Control, an FAA facility located in Burien ... just west of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The recordings of the incident display his exceptional professionalism and his calm and poised dedication to the task at hand that is a hallmark of our air traffic controller workforce nationwide.”