In 2018, Richard "Beebo" Russell stole an airplane from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — with no plans to land it.
Richard “Beebo” Russell was a well-liked, quiet man. An avid traveler, high school football star, Christian youth leader, and former bakery owner, Richard Russell shocked the world on August 10, 2018, when he stole a Q400 plane from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SeaTac), performed a series of aerial acrobatics over Puget Sound, and deliberately crashed into a nearby island and killing himself.
Richard Russell’s plane crash made headlines nationwide. At the time, it was among the most serious domestic airline security breaches since the 9/11 attacks — and it was all the more shocking because it was carried out by an unassuming 28-year-old who worked for Horizon Air, the company that owned the very plane he stole.
But what made the story so tragic was that Russell’s conversations with air-traffic control indicated that he knew it was his final ride.
“I wasn’t really planning on landing it,” he said. “I just wanna do a couple maneuvers — see what it can do before I put her down, ya know?”
This is the shocking story behind Richard Russell’s plane crash.
Who Was Richard Russell?
Richard Russell wasn’t the sort of guy you’d expect to steal an airplane. He was a God-fearing Christian who enjoyed craft beer and pastries. Friends and family described him as being goofy, reliable, and compassionate.
Affectionately given the nickname “Beebo” as an infant, Russell was born in the Florida Keys but spent most of his childhood in Wasilla, Alaska. He was a wrestler, discus player, and football star in high school — a natural athlete, built to take a hit in friendly competition.
Russell was never one to break the rules. He was extroverted, and relatives called him “a handful,” but it seemed that the wildest thing he had done was shotgun a can of Mountain Dew.
In fact, for his senior yearbook quote, he chose a Bible verse: “Whoever enters an athletic competition wins the prize only when playing by the rules.”
He had a lot going for him when he graduated high school in 2008. Valley City State University in North Dakota had recruited Russell to play football. But unfortunately, Russell never achieved the same athletic heights he had reached in high school. He didn’t play much, and left the team after his second season.
Looking to make a fresh start, Russell switched schools, enrolling in Southwestern Oregon Community College in Coos Bay. Here, he dedicated himself even more to his faith, joining the student group Campus Crusade for Christ, where he volunteered to mentor high school students.
It was through Campus Crusade that he met Hannah, the woman he would later marry in 2012. Shortly after their wedding, the two opened a bakery called Hannah Marie’s Artisan Breads and Pastries. Despite finding success, however, Hannah began to feel isolated in Coos Bay, and they made plans to move away.
Working With Horizon Air To Visit His Family
When planning their next move, Russell suggested they return to Wasilla; Hannah couldn’t be convinced. Eventually, they found themselves settling in Sumner, Washington, closer to Hannah’s family.
In the fall of 2014, they sold their bakery, and a few months later, in 2015, they moved into their new home in Washington. It was then that Russell began working as a ground-service agent with Horizon Air.
It wasn’t an ideal job. In a 2017 blog post, Russell wrote about how prior to taking the position he had often pitied the workers at airports:
“I never thought I would work as a Ground Service Agent (GSA) for an Airlines company. I always felt bad for the guys and gals who handled luggage. Every time I traveled I would look out my plane window and see these sullen looking individuals leisurely pacing around, or hectically throwing bags into a cart. It seemed like such miserable work and I never could imagine why anyone would want to subject themselves to all the constant noise, gas fumes, and heavy lifting.”
But it did offer one advantage: free-flight benefits. Now, he could visit his family in Alaska whenever he wanted.
In 2017, he graduated cum laude with a BA in social sciences from Washington State University. He talked about joining the military or law enforcement, or perhaps taking a management role at Horizon Air.
There weren’t any “warning signs” that he would soon do something drastic — at least, none that were apparent at the time. With some hindsight, however, it’s much easier to see that Russell had become obsessed with flying.
Richard Russell Begins Acting Suspicious Leading Up To The Plane Theft
Per the Seattle Times, Richard Russell was well-liked among his coworkers. He, like many employees, complained about work, but there wasn’t anything particularly odd about that.
In fact, Russell even seemed eager about certain aspects of his job — perhaps too eager. One pilot named Joel Monteith later recalled two instances in which Russell had been acting “suspicious.”
In one instance, Russell had expressed an interest in observing Monteith’s “flows,” the methodical system for starting an aircraft. Then, there was another instance, about a year before Russell stole the Q400, when Monteith found Russell and another crew member “flipping switches” inside a jet.
History of his online searches later showed that Russell had been looking up instructional videos on flying. And although he had no professional flight training, investigations would later find he had become “familiar with the checklist of actions for starting an airplane.”
Formal training or no, on Aug. 10 2018, Russell found an opportunity to put his knowledge to the ultimate, and final, test.
Richard Russell Takes To The Sky
At around 7 p.m., a few hours into his shift, Richard Russell drove a tow rig across the airfield out to a parked plane. Using his employee badge, he was able to gain entry.
Russell hit the runway and, by some incredible stroke of luck, was able to take off without a hitch. But Horizon Air employees on the ground soon realized something was amiss.
Audio recordings of the conversations between Richard Russel and air-traffic controllers paint a strange picture. As the controller asked Russell about his intentions and tried to talk him down, Russell’s responses showed a mix of enthusiasm, awe, fear, confidence, and resignation.
“Man, I’m sorry about this. I hope this doesn’t ruin your day,” he told the controller, insisting he didn’t plan on hurting anyone. But when the controller tried to guide him back down to a landing, Russell expressed that he didn’t know much about landing the plane — and that he didn’t plan to.
The Sky King’s First — And Last — Flight
Gradually, Richard Russell started to fear that the controller was “taking [him] to the jets” or that he would be shot down by anti-aircraft. When assured that he wasn’t going to be shot down, he relaxed a bit but still refused to land.
“Yeah, not quite ready to bring it down just yet,” he said, “but holy smokes, I got to stop looking at the fuel ’cause it’s going down quick… This is probably like jail time for life, huh? I mean, I would hope it is for a guy like me.”
Russell was eventually joined in the air by two F-15s, who were authorized to “head-butt” the Q400 — that is, to perform sharp turns in front of it — or to drop warning flares. The pilots never actually managed either of these maneuvers, though, as Russell’s flying was too erratic.
As time went on, Russell grew more and more panicked and complained of feeling lightheaded. The sun began to set, and he was running out of fuel. His voice began to take on a more somber tone, as he remorsefully noted how quickly the sights were passing him by.
“I got a lot of people that care about me, and it’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this,” he said. “I would like to apologize to each and every one of them. [I’m] just a broken guy. Got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it till now.”
Richard Russell Performs A Barrel Roll
Around 8:30 p.m., Russell asked a civilian pilot who had been brought in to try and help him land the plane roughly how high he needed to be to pull off a barrel roll, estimating himself that it was probably about 5,000 feet or so.
Then, by some miracle, Russell pulled it off.
The stunning moment was captured on amateur video footage. In the tape, the Q400 soars high up into the air and then flips upside down, barreling toward the Earth at a near vertical angle before leveling off just above the surface of the water.
“TOI1 just completed a barrel roll,” one of the F-15 pilots reported.
“Confirm he did a barrel roll?” came the other pilot’s incredulous reply.
The first pilot gave the affirmative with a chuckle, adding, “He cleared the surface of the water by approximately 10 feet.”
Speaking to Russel on the radio, the civilian pilot applauded his stunt, but said it was time to get the plane on the ground before anyone got hurt. For a second, it seemed as though, finally, Russell might comply.
“All right!” he said, but a moment later, panic flooded in. “Aw. Dammit. I dunno, man, I dunno! I don’t want to! I was kind of hoping that was going to be it. You know?”
The Sky King’s Tragic Death
Only about 15 minutes later, Richard Russell’s last transmission came through. It was 8:46 p.m., and his fuel reserves were nearly empty.
“Not for long,” he said, adding that one of his engines seemed to be going out.
Moments later, about 73 minutes after he took to the sky, Richard Russell crashed the Q400 into the woods of Ketron Island in the Puget Sound.
Russell died of “multiple traumatic injuries,” according to the FBI. They also classified his death as a suicide, leaving the country puzzled over what had possibly led a seemingly happy 28-year-old to pull such a drastic suicidal stunt.
Over time, some of his friends and family members speculated that Russell, who had suffered multiple concussions during his football years, may have unwittingly been struggling with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurological diseases caused by brain injuries and which is often associated with depression, impulsivity, and suicidal ideation.
Meanwhile, in the wake of Russell’s death, his tragic story gripped the nation. When recordings and footage of his dramatic flight surfaced, online communities, moved by his story, began hailing Russell as a sort of folk hero they dubbed “Sky King.”
“Beebo was a warm, compassionate man,” a statement from Russell’s family said. “He was a faithful husband, a loving man, and a good friend… He was right in saying that there are so many people who loved him.”