Officials express sadness after employee steals and crashes airplane

A Horizon Air worker took a 76-seat plane for a joyride before crashing it off the coast of Washington state. Airline officials are offering condolences—and talking new safety measures.

A wild story turned tragic when a stolen airplane crashed off the coast of Washington state.

Richard Russell, a 29-year-old Horizon Air employee, took a 76-seat plane into the air—seemingly with no flight training or experience. In speaking to air traffic controllers, Russell quipped that he had learned to fly planes from video games. He then did a barrel roll before crashing the plane on a remote, wooded island.

Initial reports that the plane had been shot down by F-15s were erroneous. Though the fighter jets had been scrambled to his location, they did not take action.

In responding to the incident the airline’s parent company, Alaska Air Holdings, immediately tweeted a preliminary statement :

The carrier also tweeted updates:

It also shared a video of its CEO responding directly to the incident:

After the plane crashed, the airline expressed grief:

The airline also shared statements and video of its press conference addressing the event on its blog .

Airline officials were shaken by the stunt, confirming that a failure to follow security protocol allowed Russell to steal the airplane.

CNN reported:

Experts said the crash exposed alarming holes in airport security, and is likely to prompt a major review of industry security measures.

“This is going to be a major learning event for the industry,” CNN aviation analyst Justin Green said. “This is a really big deal.”

Russell managed to steal the Horizon Air turboprop from a maintenance area by himself. He was in uniform, had proper credentials and had clearance to be in secure aircraft areas, said [Brad] Tilden, the airline CEO.

“They’re credential employees. They’re there to work on the airplanes. … This is aviation in America. The doors of the airplanes are not keyed like a car. There is not an ignition key like a car. The setup in aviation in America is we secure the airfield,” Tilden said.

Horizon Airline CEO Gary Beck expressed surprise at what Russell accomplished with his lack of airplane training.

CNBC reported:

“There were some maneuvers that were done that were incredible maneuvers,” Beck said. “I don’t know how he achieved the experience that he did.”

Beck said “commercial aircraft are complex machines” and not as easy to fly as a small plane such as a Cessna 150.

Airline officials have pointed to a pending investigation and partnering with the National Transportation Safety Board in response to the incident.

Wired wrote:

In a statement, Alaska Airlines says the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Transportation Safety Board are all investigating.

[…]

A large part of the investigation will focus on how the man was able to just take a plane. If he was an authorized employee of an airline, it wouldn’t have been that difficult to get on the plane itself.

[…]

In the days and weeks to come, expect authorities to look at ways to prevent even authorized employees from pulling off a similar maneuver. “They might have to look at things like when an airplane is scheduled to be in service,” says Alan Stolzer, a safety expert at the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. A computer lockout could restrict controls, outside of normal operational times. “There may be a technological solution to manage when a plane should be flying,” he says.

Others praised the air traffic controllers who calmly worked in an effort to bring the plane back.

The Atlantic wrote:

I challenge anyone to listen to the ATC tapes, either the condensed or (especially) the extended version, and not come away impressed by the calm, humane, sophisticated, utterly unflappable competence of the men and women who talked with the pilot while handling this emergency. My wife, Deb, has written often about the respect she’s gained for controllers by talking with them in our travels over the years. These are public employees, faced with a wholly unprecedented life-and-death challenge, and comporting themselves in a way that does enormous credit to them as individuals and to the system in which they work. In addition to talking to the hijacker-pilot, Seattle ATC was talking with the scores of other airline pilots whose flights were affected by the emergency. See if you detect any testiness, confusion, or exasperation in those pilots’ replies.

What do you think of the airline’s crisis response, PR Daily readers?

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