It was one of the strangest, scariest, most bizarre events of 2018: A baggage handler at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport moseyed onto the tarmac, hopped in an unoccupied Horizon Air passenger plane, taxied to an empty runway, and took off. What followed was a 73-minute joyride during which Richard “Beebo” Russell had a surprisingly candid conversation with air-traffic controllers as he pushed the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 twin-engine plane through some daring acrobatic moves. NORAD scrambled two F-15 to try to shepherd Russell away from populated areas of Seattle, but at 8:46 PM, Russell crashed the plane into an uninhabited part of Ketron Island in Puget Sound. He was immediately killed.
Now, nearly four years after the event, authorities have released new video footage showing how 28-year-old Russell — who went by the nickname “Beebo” — got through the airport and into the 76-seat plane that he flew to his death.
Even with this new footage at hand, it’s hard to figure out what made Russell embark on this brazen, fatal adventure. A beautifully-written Rolling Stone article published in summer of 2021 tells the story of Russell’s life up to the moment he towed the plane onto the runway and hopped in the cockpit, attempting to find meaning or motive to help explain why this “goofy, God-fearing baggage handler” decided to steal a plane he likely knew he couldn’t successfully land.
The newly published video, coupled with Rolling Stone’s detailed reconstruction of the events of August 10, 2018, paint the picture of a cheerful, gregarious fellow. Indeed, in transcripts of his conversation with air-traffic control as he zig-zags the stolen plane through the airspace above the 15th-largest city in the U.S. (some of which can be heard in the video above), Russell’s demeanor goes from awestruck, to giddy, to fearful, to guilty, as he seems to process in real-time the weight of what he’s done, and the unlikelihood that he’ll survive.
“It’s the first time that we’ve had a commercial aircraft stolen off the ramp of an active airport,” Steven Armstrong, vice director of operations for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), told Rolling Stone. Because there were no passengers or crew aboard the plane, it wasn’t considered a hijacking, and authorities’ response to the event seems to indicate that nobody ever expected an airport employee to hop in a plane and go for a ride with no apparent intent to terrorize, kill, or even make a greater statement.
Amazingly, despite the unprecedented nature of this deadly feat, and the fact that it could have easily become a mass casualty event, Russell’s flight and fatal crash seemed to hardly make a splash in the national news. The whole saga took place late on a Friday night in the west-coast time zone; by Monday morning, the constant news churn of the middle years of the Trump presidency seemed to have pushed any follow-up coverage of the Horizon Air crash out of the headlines. When Rolling Stone published its article last year, no major regulatory or security changes had been implemented in response to Russell’s deadly flight.