SEATTLE -- The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is the 9th busiest airport in the country, with more than 45 million passengers that flew through the airport in 2015. The airport has more than 18,000 employees. Just how the three and a half year employee of Horizon Air, Richard Russell, was able to operate the Q400 aircraft and get it off the ground without a pilot’s license remains unclear.
Russell’s friend and former co-worker DeAndre Halbert says he recently joined the tow team which allowed him to gain more access to the airplane than regular grounds crew.
“The tow team has access to talk to traffic control. They’ve been trained to turn on and off the plane and things I wouldn’t know, that regular ramp agents wouldn’t know anything about,” said Halbert.
Russell took the airplane from Cargo-1 on the north end of Sea-Tac, turned it 180-degrees using tow equipment before taxing it onto runway 16C, the center runway at the airport.
Former pilot and air traffic control operator Randy Bachmann, says the short taxi distance may have been easy to miss.
“It could be like straight out to the runway within a few, maybe 300 yards onto the runway. It could have been very fast,” said Bachmann.
Audio recording from the control tower indicates they noticed the rogue aircraft.
“Who is the aircraft on runway 1-6-Center?” says one person in air traffic control.
“He came flying out of the cargo area,” responds another.
“Call and scramble now,” says air traffic control.
That call to scramble put F-15 fighter jets from Portland in the air within minutes, following Russell while he did stunts above Pierce County before crashing on Ketron Island.
Among the many questions that remain about security, why no one was able to stop Russell before he took off remains a major concern. Bachmann says this kind of incident is so rare, no one anticipates it.
“We just don’t have any capability to intercept or stop an airplane, other than physically getting in front of it with some sort of big firetruck or something. We just don’t have a contingency for that. We just don’t train for those things,” said Bachmann.
29-year-old Russell had full credentials, according to airport officials and had passed background checks. The incident is now raising serious concerns about security breaches at Sea-Tac.
Monday, leaders from Sea-Tac Airport will meet to discuss what policies could be put in place to prevent this kind of insider security breach.