FBI Completes Investigation into Unauthorized Flight of Aircraft from Seattle-Tacoma Airport

Airport Security

Written By ESR News Blog Editor Thomas Ahearn

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has completed its investigation of the unauthorized flight of a Horizon Air Q400 aircraft from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Washington by Richard Russell on Friday, August 10, 2018, and decided – given the death of Russell in the incident and his lack of co-conspirators – to not pursue federal charges, according to a press release from the FBI Field Office in Seattle.

The FBI investigation found Russell, 28, a ground service agent for Horizon Air, piloted the aircraft alone and the final descent that caused the plane to crash on Ketron Island in Puget Sound and result in his death was intentional. The investigation failed to reveal any additional people involved in the planning or execution of the unauthorized flight. Here is the FBI’s approximate timeline of the events of August 10, 2018.

  • 2:36 p.m. PDT – Russell arrives at Port of Seattle-operated employee security checkpoint at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for his work shift.
  • 2:38 p.m. PDT – Russell clears through employee security checkpoint screening, without any anomalies.
  • 7:15 p.m. PDT – Russell arrives in a tow vehicle at Cargo 1, at far north end of the airfield.
  • 7:19 p.m. PDT – Russell climbs inside Horizon Air Q400 aircraft #N449QX.
  • 7:22 p.m. PDT – Russell begins sequence to start aircraft and propellers start turning.
  • 7:27 p.m. PDT – Russell exits the plane and uses tow vehicle to turn aircraft nose toward the airfield.
  • 7:28 p.m. PDT – Russell re-enters the plane.
  • 7:32 p.m. PDT – The aircraft pulls away from its parked location.
  • 7:33 p.m. PDT – The aircraft takes off from the airport.
  • 8:46 p.m. PDT – Flight data recorder (FDR) data shows the end of the flight, known to investigators as the aircraft crash on Ketron Island in Pierce County, Washington.

FBI interviews with co-worker, friends, and family – and a review of text messages exchanged with Russell during the incident – did not identify any information that would suggest the theft of the aircraft was related to wider criminal activity or terrorist ideology. Information regarding Russell’s background, possible stressors, and personal life did not provide a clear motivation for his actions.

The FBI investigation found Russell was a properly credentialed employee of Horizon Air, had access to the exterior and interior of aircraft in the course of his duties, and did not appear to have violated any security measures or protocols until the theft of the plane. Russell knew how to operate the aircraft’s auxiliary power unit (APU) and was familiar with tow equipment and maneuvering as part of his job.

In August 2018, ESR News reported the bizarre incident of an airline employee such as Russell stealing an empty passenger airplane and flying erratically and acrobatically for close to an hour while being followed by armed military jets before intentionally crashing the plane had raised questions about “the vulnerability of airport security” and had also potentially “exposed a gap in airline security.”

Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Airlines, which owns Horizon Air, told CNN that Russell was in uniform, had credentials, and clearance to be in secure areas. “They’re credential employees. They’re there to work on the airplanes… This is aviation in America. The doors of the airplanes are not keyed like a car. There is not an ignition key like a car. The setup in aviation in America is we secure the airfield.”

In February 2017, an investigation into airport security in America led the House Homeland Security Committee Majority Staff to issue a report that examined employee screening at approximately 450 airports in the U.S. under federal control. The report found that “much more needs to be done to improve the state of access controls and mitigate the insider threat facing America’s aviation sector.”

According to ‘America’s Airports: The Threat From Within’: Approximately 900,000 people work at these airports, and many are able to bypass traditional screening requirements that travelers visiting the airports must endure. While the overwhelming majority of these airport workers take the inherent responsibility seriously, there are increasing concerns that insider threats to aviation security are on the rise.

ESR Background Screening for Transportation Security

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