US man who stole plane untrained as pilot

Rachel La Corte and Keith Ridler
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Stolen Airplane

Richard Russell's friends are stunned and heartbroken after he stole a plane and crashed it

US investigators are piecing together how an airline ground agent stole an empty commercial plane from Seattle's international airport and managed to get it up in the air before doing acrobatic tricks while he was being chased by military jets.

After about an hour of flying, the 29-year-old crashed into a small island.

Officials said on Saturday the man was a Horizon Airlines employee for more than three years and had clearance to be among aircraft, but that to their knowledge, he wasn't a licensed pilot.

A US official briefed on the matter told The Associated Press the man was Richard Russell.

He used a machine called a pushback tractor to first manoeuvre the aircraft, which was in a maintenance area, so he could board and then take off on Friday evening, authorities said.

Astonishing video showed the Horizon Air Q400, a turboprop plane that seats 76 people and is sometimes called a Dash 8, doing large loops and other dangerous manoeuvres as the sun set on Puget Sound.

Two F-15C aircraft were scrambled from Portland and pursued the plane but authorities say they didn't fire on it before it crashed on tiny Ketron Island.

Russell could be heard on audio recordings telling air traffic controllers that he is "just a broken guy".

An air traffic controller tried to convince him to land the plane.

"There is a runway just off to your right side in about a mile," the controller says, referring to an airfield at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

"Oh man. Those guys will rough me up if I try and land there," the man responded, later adding "This is probably jail time for life, huh?

"I've got a lot of people that care about me. It's going to disappoint them to hear that I did this ... Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess."

Russell's family said in a statement that they are stunned and heartbroken.

At a news conference, officials from Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air said they were still working with authorities as they investigate what happened.

The bizarre incident involving a worker who authorities said was suicidal points to one of the biggest potential perils for commercial air travel: airline or airport employees causing mayhem.

"The greatest threat we have to aviation is the insider threat," Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent and transportation security expert, told the AP. "Here we have an employee who was vetted to the level to have access to the aircraft and had a skill set proficient enough to take off with that plane."

There was no connection to terrorism, said Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the sheriff's department.

Coaches at Wasilla High School in Alaska, where Russell was a football player, wrestler and discus thrower, told the Anchorage Daily News they are shocked at the news.

Track and field coach Gary Howell said he was "absolutely the kind of kid you want on your team."

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