Sea-Tac reviewing ways to prevent another stolen plane ‘insider threat’
OLYMPIA – Sea-Tac International Airport and Alaska Airlines are reviewing security procedures in the wake of an incident last August in which a ground crew member started a commercial plane, took off and later crashed in what appears to have been a suicide.
“There was not a breakdown of any existing airport protocol,” Wendy Ryder, director of aviation security at Sea-Tac, told the Senate Transportation Committee Wednesday.
Richard Russell, who died in the crash, wasn’t following protocols and benefited from a brief lull in air traffic that allowed him to start up the Horizon Bombardier Dash 8 Q-400 and take off in just minutes.
Both the airport and airline have extensive procedures involving security badges and biometric scans to guard against what are known as insider threats. The incident sparked a national discussion of how they can be improved.
Russell, 28, of Sumner, had worked for Alaska for nearly four years and had all the required authorization and security clearances to be on the air field and in the maintenance hangar where the plane was parked. He was trained and authorized to tow planes out of the hangar – although not by himself, as protocols require at least two people for that job. He was not authorized to start the engines.
But that’s what he did on Aug. 10, unhooking the tow bar after positioning the plane to taxi to the center runway and become airborne around 7:30 p.m. There was no line of planes waiting to take off and no planes landing that evening at that time.
Asked by Committee Chairman Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, if there was a way to stop the plane without endangering other lives once it got to the runway, Ryder said no.
Russell had no formal pilot training, but apparently had done significant online research on how to fly the plane, said Max Tidwell, vice president of safety and security for Alaska Airlines.
A recent FBI investigation concluded he had no accomplices.
Minutes after Russell took off, he told the Sea-Tac tower that he was “not here to hurt anyone, just taking it for a spin,” said Maj. John Dalrymple, mission commander for the response crew from the Washington Air National Guard. The crew manning the Western Air Defense Center was alerted a few minutes after Russell took off.
At 7:49 p.m., the Air Force scrambled a pair of F-15 fighter jets out of Portland to intercept the Horizon plane.
The exact time that passed between getting the call and catching up to Russell is classified, Dalrymple said, but was less than seven minutes.
An F-15 has a top speed of 1,875 miles per hour, according to the Boeing Co., its manufacturer.
The Air Force pilots talked with Russell, Dalrymple said. At 8:10 p.m., he said didn’t feel like living any more. At 8:17 p.m. he said he wanted to land but didn’t want to deal with the repercussions.
At 8:29 p.m., he said he wasn’t going to land, but would do a barrel roll, go nose down “and call it a night.” Minutes later he did just that on an unpopulated part of Ketron Island in south Puget Sound.
Hobbs said he scheduled the briefing session for the committee about a month ago when some of its members were curious as to whether there was anything the Legislature could do. Sea-Tac is operated by the Port of Seattle, which is a government agency.
But the incident seems to involve someone who had undetected mental health problems that led him to consider suicide, Hobbs said. “I don’t know if there’s anything more we can do on our side,” he said.