2018 Horizon Air Q400 incident

Coordinates: 47°08′53″N 122°38′15″W / 47.148056°N 122.637500°W / 47.148056; -122.637500
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2018 Horizon Air Q400 crash
N449QX, the aircraft involved in the incident, photographed 2 months before the crash.
DateAugust 10, 2018
SummaryAircraft theft and suicide
SiteKetron Island, Washington, United States
47°08′53″N 122°38′15″W / 47.148056°N 122.637500°W / 47.148056; -122.637500[1]
Aircraft typeBombardier Q400
Flight originSeattle–Tacoma International Airport

On August 10, 2018, a Horizon Air De Havilland Canada Dash 8-400 was stolen from Seattle–Tacoma International Airport (Sea–Tac) in Seattle, Washington. The perpetrator, 29-year-old Richard Russell, was a Horizon Air ground service agent with no piloting experience. After Russell performed an unauthorized takeoff, two McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle fighters were scrambled to intercept the aircraft. Sea–Tac air traffic control made radio contact with Russell, the sole occupant, who described himself as a "broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess." About 1 hour and 15 minutes after takeoff, Russell crashed the aircraft on lightly populated Ketron Island in Puget Sound, killing himself.


The aircraft involved in the incident was a Bombardier Q400, owned by Horizon Air (and operating for Alaska Airlines) with the registration N449QX[2][3][4] and serial number 4410. It had first flown in 2012 and was delivered new to Horizon Air in the same year.[4] It landed at Seattle–Tacoma International Airport at 13:35 local time the afternoon of the incident, after an in-service flight from Victoria, British Columbia.[5] It was not scheduled to fly again that day.[6]


Chart of the far northern end of Seattle–Tacoma International, showing the location of Cargo 1 and runway 16C
Location of Seattle–Tacoma International Airport (north) and Ketron Island (south) within northwestern Washington state.

The aircraft was stolen from Plane Cargo 1 at the north end of Sea–Tac Airport[6] and maneuvered to runway 16C via taxiways.[5] Seattle Tower tried several times to get the pilot of the aircraft to identify himself on frequency, but received no response.[5] A nearby Alaska Airlines jet on the ground reported that the aircraft began a takeoff roll with its wheels smoking,[5] and an unauthorized take-off was made at 19:32 local time (02:32 UTC, August 11).[1][7][8][9] In response, two McDonnell Douglas F-15C Eagles of the Oregon Air National Guard's 142nd Fighter Wing under the command of NORAD[10] were scrambled at around 20:15 local time[11] from Portland Air National Guard Base to intercept it. Both were armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles[12] and reached supersonic speeds, which generated sonic booms on the way to the Puget Sound area.[4][13] A KC-135R Stratotanker refueling tanker was also scrambled from Fairchild Air Force Base to support the F-15 flight.[12] Flights in and out of Sea–Tac Airport were temporarily suspended.[7]

Seattle–Tacoma air traffic control (ATC) maintained radio contact with the occupant.[14] The transmissions were quickly recorded and posted on social media websites.[15] He said he was a "broken guy, got a few screws loose I guess. Never really knew it until now."[16] When ATC suggested that the plane be landed at Joint Base Lewis–McChord, the occupant refused: "Those guys will rough me up if I try and land there. I think I might mess something up there, too. I wouldn't want to do that."[17] He asked ATC if he could get a job as a pilot with Alaska Airlines if he successfully landed the aircraft. ATC said, "they would give you a job doing anything if you could pull this off", to which he replied, "Yeah right! Nah, I'm a White guy."[18] He spoke of wanting to do "a couple maneuvers to see what it [the aircraft] can do", and requested the coordinates of an orca that had been brought to national attention, saying, "I want to go see that guy." He stated that he did not want to hurt anyone,[17][19] and in the final minutes of the communication apologized to his friends and family.[15] Near the end of the flight, the aircraft was seen performing a barrel roll over Puget Sound, recovering approximately ten feet (3 m) above the water.[20] A veteran pilot said the maneuver "seemed pretty well executed, without either stalling or pulling the wings off."[21] When an air traffic controller requested he land the plane after this maneuver, he said "I don't know. I don't want to. I was kind of hoping that was gonna be it, you know?"[16][19] He added that he "wasn't really planning on landing it."[22]

The two F-15s attempted to direct the aircraft toward the Pacific Ocean, and did not fire at it.[23] The Q400 ultimately crashed at 20:43 local time[1] on Ketron Island in Puget Sound, Pierce County, Washington, killing the occupant and destroying the aircraft.[4][6][9] A tow boat crew was the first to respond.[24] Delayed by the Steilacoom–Anderson Island ferry, firefighters from West Pierce Fire and Rescue and other nearby departments arrived on the island about an hour and a half after the crash, where they then contended with the island's thick brush. The fire burned a 2-acre (0.8 ha) area,[6] but was extinguished by the following morning.[25][26] No injuries were reported to residents of the sparsely populated island despite the crash site being in close proximity to at least one cabin, which was occupied at the time of the incident.[27]


The Pierce County Sheriff's Office both thanked the public for its accurate information and acknowledged on August 11 that federal agencies would be leading the investigation, primarily the Seattle office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).[28] It described the perpetrator, identified as 29-year-old Richard Russell,[29][30] as suicidal and said his actions did not constitute a "terrorist incident".[19] Alaska Air Group CEO Brad Tilden announced on the same day that the airline was coordinating with the Federal Aviation Administration, the FBI, and the National Transportation Safety Board, and was "working to find out everything we possibly can about what happened".[31][32] On August 12, the FBI said that it had recovered the flight data recorder along with components of the cockpit voice recorder. The equipment was sent to the National Transportation Safety Board for processing.[33]

On November 9, the FBI stated that it had completed its investigation. Terrorism was ruled out, and Russell was found to have acted alone. The final descent at Ketron Island was determined to be intentional, and suicide was listed as the manner of death.[34][35] The FBI stated, "Interviews with work colleagues, friends, and family—and 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. Although investigators received information regarding Russell's background, possible stressors, and personal life, no element provided a clear motivation for Russell's actions."[34]

Richard Russell[edit]

Richard Russell was a Horizon Air ground service agent from Sumner, Washington.[36] He had been part of a tow team, which repositions aircraft on the airport apron, for about four years.[29] An operational supervisor for Horizon Air described Russell as "a quiet guy" who was "well liked by the other workers".[37] During his communication with air traffic control, Russell made a complaint about wages, stating: "Minimum wage, we'll chalk it up to that. Maybe that will grease some gears a little bit with the higher-ups."[38]

Russell was born in Key West, Florida, and moved to Wasilla, Alaska, at the age of seven.[37] From early childhood he was known as "Beebo" to his friends and family.[39] He attended Wasilla High School, where he wrestled and competed in track and field.[40] He was a hard-hitting football fullback in high school, scoring six touchdowns in his senior year, after which he moved to North Dakota to join the football team at Valley City State University. He left for Southwestern Oregon Community College, where he met his wife at a Campus Crusade for Christ meeting.[20] They married in 2012. Together, they started a bakery in North Bend, Oregon.[41] They sold the bakery in 2015 so his wife could be closer to her family; they settled in Sumner, Washington, and Russell found employment with Horizon Air.[39] He was an avid traveler and attended Washington State University Global Campus, majoring in social science. He had planned to seek a management position at Horizon Air or become a military officer after receiving his degree.[18] He was active in his church and a leader in the local Christian youth ministry Young Life.[37]

Horizon Air CEO Gary Beck stated that, as far as the company knew, Russell did not have a pilot's license. Beck said the aerial maneuvers were "incredible" and that he "did not know how [Russell] achieved the experience that he did."[42] During his conversation with air traffic control, Russell said he "[knew] what [he was] doing a little bit" because he had experience playing video games.[18] After the incident, Joel Monteith, a pilot for SkyWest Airlines, relayed to an emergency dispatcher that in 2017, he saw Russell and another man "pointing and flipping switches" in the cockpit of a SkyWest aircraft parked at Sea–Tac Airport. Monteith stated the men told him they were training to use the aircraft's auxiliary power unit so they could tow it, but said it was "suspicious" that they left when he confronted them. Monteith also recalled that Russell had been in the cockpit of an Embraer 175 with him, and that Russell asked him about his "flows, which is the preflight preparation I do for takeoff."[43] Some co-workers said that Russell had probably trained himself to fly using amateur flight simulation software.[20]

Russell's family released a statement on August 11, stating they were "stunned and heartbroken" and "devastated by the events".[44]


In the days after the crash, clean up and recovery crews contracted by Alaska Airlines and their insurers were present on the island to remove debris. As of 2019, this clean up effort was still ongoing, with pieces of aircraft wreckage still being located on the island after the first anniversary of the incident. Residents of the island bore some of the cost for cleaning up, and negotiations were initiated for their reimbursement by Alaska Airlines' insurers.[45] The aircraft was worth $30 million, all of which was paid under the company's insurance policy "with no deductibles."[20]

Rolling Stone magazine investigated the incident and reported in 2021 that some of Russell's friends and family believe he may have suffered brain injuries during his football years in high school and college. A football teammate suggested his mental instability had been caused by undiagnosed chronic traumatic encephalopathy that may have come from repeated concussions.[20]

Videos and radio transmissions of the event were followed online, immediately sparking a meme dubbing Russell the Sky King. People expressed an emotional connection with him through postings on social media, T-shirts, and tribute songs.[20]

On April 14, 2022, the FBI released 500 pages of previously classified documents related to the investigation.[46][47]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "National Transportation Safety Board Aviation Accident Preliminary Report Accident Number: WPR18FA220". National Transportation Safety Board. August 10, 2018. WPR18FA220. Archived from the original on August 17, 2018. Retrieved August 17, 2018. Alt URL
  2. ^ Dietrich-Williams, Ayn (August 15, 2018). "Update on Investigation into Unauthorized Flight" (Press release). Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved August 15, 2018.
  3. ^ Stewart, Ashley (August 10, 2018). "Alaska Air Horizon plane crashes after being stolen by airline employee". Puget Sound Business Journal. Retrieved August 11, 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d Ranter, Harro. "N449QX Criminal Occurrence description". aviation-safety.net. Aviation Safety Network. Retrieved August 11, 2018.
  5. ^ a b c d Day, Matt (August 11, 2018). "'We were all screaming, "Oh my god"': How the Horizon Air theft and crash unfolded". The Seattle Times. Retrieved August 11, 2018.
  6. ^ a b c d "How it unfolded: Full coverage of the Horizon Air crash and the man who stole the plane from Sea-Tac". The Seattle Times. August 10, 2018. Retrieved August 15, 2018.
  7. ^ a b "'Stolen' plane closes Seattle airport before crashing into sea". BBC News. August 11, 2018. Retrieved August 11, 2018.
  8. ^ Bethany, Bethany; Marris, Sharon (August 11, 2018). "Stolen plane was chased by military jets before it crashed". news.sky.com. Sky News. Retrieved August 11, 2018.
  9. ^ a b Hradecky, Simon (August 11, 2018). "Crash: Horizon DH8D at Ketron Island on Aug 10th 2018, stolen aircraft crashed into forest". The Aviation Herald. Retrieved August 11, 2018.
  10. ^ "Stolen plane closes Seattle-Tacoma airport before crashing". BBC News. August 11, 2018. Retrieved August 11, 2018.
  11. ^ Rogoway, Tyler. "Oregon F-15s Scramble To Seattle To Intercept Possibly Stolen Q400 Airliner (Updated)". The Drive. Retrieved August 15, 2018.
  12. ^ a b Demerly, Tom (August 11, 2018). "F-15Cs Intercept Stolen DASH-8 Airliner out of Seattle Tacoma Airport Before Crash". The Aviationist. Retrieved August 11, 2018.
  13. ^ "LIVE: Plane stolen from Sea-Tac Airport crashes on small island; no passengers on board". KXTV-TV. August 10, 2018. Archived from the original on April 16, 2019. Retrieved August 10, 2018.
  14. ^ Sailor, Craig (August 11, 2018). "Pilot wanted to do aerobatics, apologized for his actions as he spoke with air traffic control". The News Tribune. Retrieved August 11, 2018.
  15. ^ a b Copp, Tara (August 11, 2018). "NORAD F-15Cs intercept suicidal pilot in dramatic chase near Seattle". Military Times. Retrieved August 12, 2018.
  16. ^ a b Fortin, Jacey (August 11, 2018). "Passenger Plane Stolen by Employee Crashes on Island Near Seattle Airport". The New York Times. Retrieved August 11, 2018.
  17. ^ a b Miroff, Nick; Horton, Alex. "Seattle hijacker's plane heist, midair stunts and fiery crash expose gaps in aviation security". The Washington Post Online. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved August 13, 2018.
  18. ^ a b c McBride, Jessica (August 11, 2018). "Richard Russell, 'Rich': 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know". Heavy.com.
  19. ^ a b c Cook, Jeffrey (August 11, 2018). "Airline worker who stole plane told air traffic control 'I don't want to hurt no one'". KTRK-TV. Retrieved August 11, 2018.
  20. ^ a b c d e f Dickinson, Tim (June 24, 2021). "The Sky Thief". Rolling Stone. Retrieved June 29, 2021.
  21. ^ Clive, Irving (August 12, 2018). "SeaTac Hijacker Had the Skills to Take Out a Skyscraper Horizon Air ground handler Richard Russell knew how to fly without tearing the plane apart—and enough fuel to be a flying bomb. How was he able to take off without being stopped?". Daily Beast. Retrieved August 12, 2018.
  22. ^ Sider, Alison; Pasztor, Andy; Greene, Jay (August 12, 2018). "Plane Thief Said He Trained on Games, Didn't Plan to Land". The Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660.
  23. ^ "NORAD: Fighter jets were trying to direct stolen plane over Pacific Ocean when it crashed". The Seattle Times. August 11, 2018. Retrieved August 15, 2018.
  24. ^ MyNorthWestStaff (August 11, 2018). "Towboat crew dropped everything to respond to Ketron Island crash". My Northwest. Retrieved August 11, 2018.
  25. ^ Misciagna, Vanessa (August 12, 2018). "Firefighters battle more than flames after Ketron Island plane crash". KING-TV. Retrieved August 13, 2018.
  26. ^ Pulkkinen, Levi (August 12, 2018). "Seattle plane crash: 'heartbroken' family remember gentle man who meant no harm". The Guardian. Retrieved August 13, 2018.
  27. ^ Eldridge, Keith (August 15, 2018). "Ketron Island residents grateful Horizon Air plane didn't crash into homes". KOMO.
  28. ^ Pierce County Sheriff's Department [@PierceSheriff] (August 11, 2018). "Thanks to everyone for sharing accurate information, insuring the public's safety. The federal agencies will lead the investigation. All further inquiries should be directed to the Seattle FBI office" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  29. ^ a b Kogan, Danielle (August 11, 2018). "Alaska Airlines: Everything We Know About the Suicidal Hijacker". Newsweek. Retrieved August 11, 2018.
  30. ^ "Airplane taken from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has crashed". Seattle Times. August 10, 2018.
  31. ^ "Authorities probe how 'suicidal' employee could steal plane from Seattle airport". Honolulu Star Advertiser. August 11, 2018. Retrieved August 11, 2018.
  32. ^ "Man who sought 'serenity' before crashing stolen plane near Seattle is identified". The Straits Times. August 11, 2018. Retrieved August 11, 2018.
  33. ^ "Human remains, black box found from plane stolen by Seattle airport employee". USA Today. August 13, 2018. Retrieved August 13, 2018.
  34. ^ a b "FBI Completes Investigation into August 2018 Unauthorized Flight from Seattle-Tacoma Airport" (Press release). Seattle, Washington: Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved November 9, 2018.
  35. ^ Levin, Alan (November 9, 2018). "Horizon Air Worker Who Crashed Plane Bent on Suicide, Not Terror". Bloomberg.
  36. ^ "Seattle: stolen plane crashes after rogue take-off from Sea-Tac airport". The Guardian. August 11, 2018.
  37. ^ a b c "Man who took Horizon Air plane from Sea-Tac Airport was quiet, well liked, says former co-worker". The Seattle Times. August 11, 2018.
  38. ^ Gutman, David; Bernton, Hal (August 19, 2018). "Richard Russell was a jokester who complained about work, but Sea-Tac plane heist still baffles friends". The Seattle Times.
  39. ^ a b Langone, Alix (August 12, 2018). "'Beebo Was Loved By Everyone.' Family Left Heartbroken After Airline Worker Steals and Crashes Plane". Time.
  40. ^ Betz, Bradford (August 12, 2018). "Family of man who stole plane at Sea-Tac express 'shock,' others say 'Beebo' was friendly guy". Fox News.
  41. ^ Staff writer(s) (April 2, 2012). "New bakery is a labor of love". The World.
  42. ^ "Authorities don't believe man who stole plane had a pilot's license". CBS. August 11, 2018. Retrieved August 11, 2018.
  43. ^ Kamb, Lewis (September 12, 2018). "'Airplane of opportunity'? Richard Russell raised pilot's suspicions a year before Sea-Tac plane heist". The Seattle Times.
  44. ^ D'Angelo, Bob (August 12, 2018). "Who was Richard Russell? 7 things to know". The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Retrieved August 12, 2018.
  45. ^ Land, Ted (August 9, 2019). "One year after stolen Horizon plane crash, scars remain on Ketron Island". msn.com. Archived from the original on January 26, 2020. Retrieved May 11, 2021.
  46. ^ "FBI releases classified documents from 2018 Horizon Air plane theft, crash". KIRO 7 News Seattle. April 14, 2022. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  47. ^ "Richard Russell Part 01 of 01". FBI. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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