SEATTLE - The airline worker who stole an empty airplane from a Seattle airport on a flight that ended in his death once ran a bakery with his wife and enjoyed the benefits that came with his job to travel the world, social media posts showed.
Richard Russell, who liked to be called Beebo, was a 29-year-old man living in Sumner, Washington, who was born in Key West, Florida, and moved to Wasilla, Alaska, when he was 7 years old, according to a Web page he set up for a college communications class.
Law enforcement officials have identified him to US media, Agence France-Presse said.
Authorities ruled out any link to terror. But consternation grew over the safety gaps that allowed an airport worker to easily gain access to a commercial airliner and fly it over a major metropolitan area.
Airplane theft, as opposed to hijacking – taking over control in flight, with passengers aboard – is actually not uncommon, though it usually involves private aircraft, not commercial airliners, reported New York Times.
Colton Harris-Moore, nicknamed the Barefoot Bandit, was sentenced in 2011 for stealing small planes, which he had learned to fly himself as a teenager after reading flight manuals. Drug trade across the United States-Mexico border often happens in stolen planes.
Friday's episode also raised questions about the little-known details of life on the tarmac, in the loading, fueling and cleaning operations of airplanes – unglamorous work that is critical to public safety but often poorly paid.
Russell worked for Horizon Airlines, a sister carrier of Alaska Airlines, as a ground service agent who helped baggage handlers and was part of Horizon's tow team, which moved planes around on the tarmac.
It was a job that gave him the perk of "being able to fly to Alaska at my leisure," he wrote on the page.
In a video posted on YouTube last December, Russell shows luggage coming off and being loaded onto aircraft, and describes what the life of a ground service agent can entail.
"That means I lift a lot of bags, like a lot of bags, so many bags," he says, adding, "it allows me to do some pretty cool things, too."
There are then shots of trips he took, including flying over Alaskan fjords, visiting lavender fields in France, touring in Yucatan, Mexico, and attending a hurling match in Dublin, Ireland. "It evens out in the end," he says to end the video.
There was no mention in the social media posts of studying to become a pilot but in some posts he spoke of his Christian religious faith and the possibility of joining the military.
On a SoundCloud site, Russell interviews fellow ground service agents, asking them questions that include: "What was one of your best travel experiences using your flight benefits?"
Authorities say he commandeered an empty Bombardier Q400, 32.61-metre long turboprop aircraft on Friday (Aug 10) night from a maintenance area at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. He flew for about an hour, often erratically with attempts at aerial stunts, before crashing on Ketron Island in Puget Sound, about 40km to the southwest.
He appeared to have acted alone and was suicidal, according to the local sheriff's department.
His family members said in a statement they were stunned and heartbroken. "It may seem difficult for those watching at home to believe, but Beebo was a warm, compassionate man," the statement said.
Russell's social media posts often showed him on adventures with his wife Hannah, who he said he met in Oregon in 2010. "We were married one year later, and one month after that we opened a bakery which we successfully ran for 3 years," he wrote on his blog page. "We consider ourselves bakery connoisseurs and have to try a new one every place we go."
The couple later moved to Washington state, where he got a job with Horizon. His wife could not immediately be reached for comment.
"In this season of life, we enjoy exploring as much as possible, whether its a day (or so) trip to one of Alaska Airline's destinations or visiting a new area of Washington," he wrote.
He also included photos of his wedding and travelling he had done in the mountains and other sites he had seen, including some ancient ruins.
According to USA Today, Russell ended the "about" section of the blog with his dreams for the future: Moving up to become a manager at Horizon Air or joining the military as an officer.
The Seattle Times quoted Rick Christenson, an operational supervisor with the airline who retired in May, as saying Russell was a well-liked, quiet person.
"Everybody's stunned... that something like this would happen," said recently-retired Christenson. "How could it? Everybody's been through background checks."
"He was a quiet guy. It seemed like he was well liked by the other workers," Christenson told The Seattle Times. "I feel really bad for Richard and for his family. I hope they can make it through this," he added.
In an interview with CNN, Jeremy Kaelin, a former co-worker of Russell, recalls him as a "nice guy" and a hard worker.
Kaelin said he worked with Russell in 2016, and that he remembers "happy, funny" chats with him in the break room.
"He was a nice guy," Kaelin told CNN. "He was definitely one of the harder working people on the ramps. He was always trying to be faster, but, yet, he still worked in a safe manner."
In recordings of Russell’s remarkable conversation with air traffic controllers he speaks admiringly of the Olympic Mountains at sunset, complains of lightheadedness and muses about potential prison time if he were to land the plane safely.
At one point, an air traffic controller asked if Russell felt comfortable flying.
“It’s a blast, man,” Russell replied. “I played video games before so, you know, I know what I’m doing a little bit.” At times, Russell was contrite.
“Man, I’m sorry about this. I hope this doesn’t ruin your day,” he said to the controller, adding that he was grateful to be kept away from other aircraft. “I’m glad you’re not, you know, screwing up everyone else’s day on account of me.”
He said he hoped to have a “moment of serenity” in the air but lamented that the sights “went by so fast.”
In Russell's final moments captured by partial recordings of his conversations with air traffic controllers that were published online by Broadcastify.com, Russell spoke calmly and said he was sorry to disappoint people who cared about him and described himself as a "broken guy".
"I would like to apologise to each and every one of them," he is heard saying in the recording. "Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it until now."
Sources: REUTERS, AFP, CNN, USA TODAY, NYTIMES