Alaska Airlines Sheds Light on Unauthorized Take-Off

Alaska Air Group spokeswoman Bobbie Egan introduces from second left to right Alaska president and CEO Brad Tilden, Horizon Air president and CEO Gary Beck, Port of Seattle operations director Mike Ehl and FBI special-agent-in-charge Jay Tabb at a news conference at Sea-Tac International Airport. // Photo by Daniel Beekman /The Seattle Times via AP, Newscred

Alaska Airlines held a press briefing this weekend to address the unauthorized take-off and subsequent crash of one of its passenger planes by a ground service worker at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Friday, August 10. 

According to The Seattle Times, the Horizon Air employee and unauthorized pilot was 29-year-old Richard Russell, who had been a ground service employee with Horizon Air since 2015. Horizon Air is a subsidiary company that operates Alaska Airlines aircraft. 

At the time of the press briefing, held at 11 a.m. Pacific time on August 11, the identity of the rogue pilot was not confirmed. However, the press briefing included other insights into the incident and its investigation, as well as statements from Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Airlines, Gary Beck, CEO of Horizon Air and Mike Ehl, director of operations at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

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According to Gary Beck, the ground service worker departed in a Horizon Air Q400 aircraft without clearance from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at 7:32 p.m. Pacific time on Friday. The plane was taken from a maintenance position and was not scheduled for passenger flight when it was taken. About an hour after taking off, the aircraft crashed on Ketron Island in Pierce County, Washington. Beck said that military jets were deployed to tail the plane and escort it, but they were not involved with the crash. 

According to CBS News, the Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office confirmed Sunday that Russell had died in the fiery wreckage of the crash. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department told NBC News that there were no other passengers on the plane.

The Los Angeles Times reports that during the unauthorized flight, Russell talked with air-traffic controllers who pleaded with him to land the plane, according to officials and dispatch audio. Russell was described as suicidal and authorities said there was no indication that the crash was a terrorist incident.

According to Mike Ehl, the incident delayed approximately 75 flights, cancelled five, and forced nine others to divert to other airports. Operations were back to normal by 1 a.m. Pacific time on August 11.

“All of us at Alaska and Horizon are deeply saddened by last night’s unauthorized flight… that resulted in the loss of life for the individual involved,” said Brad Tilden during the press briefing. “All 23,000 of us want to express our sincere sympathy to his family, his loved ones, and his coworkers.”

According to Tilden and Alaska Airlines’ blog, the airline is working with the FBI, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to investigate the circumstances of the unauthorized flight. The FBI is the lead investigator for this incident.

“Safety is our number one goal. There is nothing is more important to us,” Tilden said. “Last night’s event is going to push us to learn what we can from this tragedy so that we can assure this does not happen again at Alaska Air Group or at any other airline.”

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