WASILLA — Gary Howell could not believe the news. The longtime Wasilla High School track and field coach had read about the Horizon Airlines Q400 plane stolen from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Washington late Friday night. But Howell would have never imagined who is believed to have taken the plane that later crashed in the Puget Sound area.
Richard “Beebo” Russell, 29, reportedly stole the plane, and after communicating in-air with traffic controllers, crashed the plane and died.
“No, not Beebo,” Howell said Saturday morning as he worked to try to process the information. “This is not the Beebo I know. Not the Beebo I know period.”
Russell, a Horizon Airline employee at the time of his death, was a multisport athlete at Wasilla High. The 2008 WHS graduate, who committed to play college football at Valley City State in North Dakota as a senior, stood out on the track and football teams. Howell said Russell started a tradition in the WHS weight room that lives on to this day.
“He started a trend, writing your name on your weight belt and what you achieved on your different lifts,” Howell said. “That still goes one. The weight belt is there with your stats.”
According to Alaska Airlines, the plane was stolen at about 8 p.m. Friday night and flown toward Puget Sound. Air traffic controllers were able to make contact with Russell as he flew. The correspondence was recorded, and an audio file was obtained by the Frontiersman.
“I want to see what this weather is going to be like in the Olympics,” Russell,told air traffic controllers, referring to the Olympic Mountains in western Washington, after he was advised to land the plane.
Russell continued to say he hit turbulence near Mount Rainier, “but there’s no clouds hardly.”
Air traffic controllers advised Russell to turn the plane around before he got too close to Mount Rainer. Russell followed with an apology.
“I got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear I did this,” Russell told air-traffic controllers. “I would like to apologize to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy. Got a few screws loose I guess. Never really knew it till just now.”
As air-traffic controls continued to advise Russell to turn the plane and land, Russell carried on.
“Can this thing do a back flip you think?” Russell asked as he started to show concern about the amount of fuel onboard. “I don’t know what the burnout is like on a take off, but it burned out quite a bit faster than I expected.”
Air-traffic controllers urged Russell to listen to help on how to land the plane.
“I don’t need that much help. I’ve played video games before,” Russell said.
Later in the correspondence, Russell said he needed help with pressurizing the cabin so he would not feel so light-headed. Air-traffic controllers again tried to get Russell to land the plane, offering McChord Field in Pierce County, Washington, as an option.
“Man, those guys would rough me up if I tried landing there,” Russell said. “They’ve probably got anti-aircraft.”
Air-traffic continued to try to get Russell to land the plane.
“Not quite ready to bring it down yet, but holy smokes, I’ve got to stop looking at the fuel (because) it’s going down quick,” Russell said.
Toward the end of the correspondence, Russell examined the situation.
“This is probably jail time for life. I would hope it is for a guy like me,” Russell said. “Minimum wage. Chalk it up to that. Maybe that’ll grease the gears with the higher ups.”
And Russell asked again about what the plane was capable of.
“Feel like I need to be 5,000 feet up to pull this barrel roll off,” Russell sad.
Video footage shot by witnesses and shared online Saturday shows the Horizon plane flying erratically above Puget Sound.
In a press conference Saturday, Alaska Airlines officials confirmed the incident, but did not name Russell as the pilot of the plane. Alaska Airlines officials did confirm the death of the pilot, the lone occupant in the plane.
“All of us at Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air are saddened by last night’s unauthorized flight of a Horizon Q400 aircraft that resulted in the loss of life of the individual involved,” Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden said during the press conference Saturday.
Tilden said Alaska Airlines is working with the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Transportation Safety Board as the investigation continues.
“We’re working to find out everything we possibly can about what happened,” Tilden said.
Horizon Air President and CEO Gary Beck said the plane crashed on Ketron Island about an hour after it left Sea-Tac.
“No ground structures were involved in the crash,” Beck said in the press conference.
According to Alaska Airlines, the plane was taken from a maintenance position and was not scheduled for a passenger flight.
“Military jets were scrambled from (Portland, Oregon), but it does not appear that these jets were involved in the crash of the horizon aircraft,” Alaska Airlines officials posted in an update Saturday afternoon.
Howell said he could not imagine Russell being involved in something like this.
“He was super gregarious, funny, a hard worker,” Howell said. “Really outgoing. He was a little bit goofy.”
Howell said Russell was a fun-loving student-athlete who stayed out of trouble.
“Absolutely great kid. Great family. Leader. Positive. Funny,” Howell said. “He’s an All-American kid. The kid you want to coach.”
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman sports editor Jeremiah Bartz at email@example.com.