Officials recover Horizon Air flight data recorder, say plane was destroyed beyond recognition

By Amir Vera and Kyung Lah

(CNN) -- The Horizon Air plane that was stolen in Seattle and ultimately crashed over the weekend, killing the employee who stole it, is unrecognizable, according to a National Transportation Safety Board chief.

The plane went through several 100-foot-high lines of trees and was fragmented from the crash into pieces tiny enough to pick up, NTSB Western Pacific Region chief Debra Eckrote said Sunday.

"You couldn't even tell it was a plane except for some of the bigger sections, like the wing section," Eckrote said. "Even the small sections, most of it doesn't resemble a plane."

Richard Russell took off in the stolen plane at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Friday night, flew for about an hour with military jets chasing him and crashed the 76-seater Horizon Air plane in a wooded island, authorities said.

Russell was the only person aboard, the Pierce County Sheriff's Department said. The Sheriff's Department described Russell as suicidal but did not elaborate.

The NTSB recovered the flight data recorder from the crash site, Eckrote said. The recorder is burned but intact, she said, and will be shipped tomorrow. It is expected to arrive in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, she said. Analysis will begin midweek. It is unknown when the full analysis will be completed.

'A complete shock' to the family

The plane crash has left Russell's family devastated.

In a statement, his family said his "intent was not to harm anyone," referring to audio recordings of Russell talking to air traffic control during the flight.

"This is a complete shock to us," the family said Saturday night. "We are devastated by these events, and Jesus is truly the only one holding this family together right now."

Russell had worked as a Horizon Air ground service agent for 3½ years. His job included directing aircraft for takeoff and gate approach, handling baggage and tidying and de-icing planes.

Russell, or "Beebo" as some called him, was "a faithful husband, a loving son and a good friend," his family said. They also said the 29-year-old was "kind and gentle to each person he met."

Officials don't believe Russell had a pilot's license, and they don't know how he knew to fly the plane. Jeremy Kaelin said he worked with Russell in 2016, and remembered "happy, funny" chats with him in the break room.

"He was a nice guy," Kaelin said. "He was definitely one of the harder working people on the ramps."

Military jets did not bring the plane down

Russell had worked a shift Friday when he took a plane parked in a maintenance area of the Seattle-Tacoma Airport, said Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Air Group, which owns Horizon Air.

He used a vehicle known as a pushback tractor to move the empty turboprop plane and took off without authorization at 7:32 p.m. Friday, officials said.

Russell flew for about an hour, talking periodically with air traffic controllers and making turns and even some aerobatic maneuvers as two armed F-15 jets followed him, officials said.

Video from a witness on the ground shows the plane at one point pulling up for a loop, putting the aircraft upside-down and then pulling back up just feet above a body of water.

The plane eventually crashed on sparsely populated Ketron Island, starting a fire in the woods and killing Russell. No one outside the plane was injured, officials said.

The cause of the crash wasn't immediately known but authorities said the F-15s did not bring the plane down.

Security concerns

While the crash only killed Russell, the theft of a commercial airline from a major US airport has exposed a gap in airline security.

The FBI said it does not consider the incident terror-related. Authorities will try to piece together how a security scare of this magnitude occurred at major airport.

Experts said the crash exposed alarming gaps 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 76-seat 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 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.

Russell appeared to have broken protocol several times. He shouldn't have been able to board the plane alone and go unnoticed. He also moved the plane by himself while protocol calls for two people to tow an aircraft.

"The fact he was out there by himself, towing the aircraft by himself ... then moving the tracker out of the way, so he could get on the aircraft and move. The fact that all of that happened without even being noticed by anyone on the ground service crew, that is just phenomenal to me," said CNN analyst and former FAA safety inspector David Soucie.

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