On Friday, a suicidal 29-year-old air mechanic named Richard Russell commandeered an Alaskan Airlines/Horizon Air Bombardier Dash 8 commuter airliner at the Seattle/Tacoma Airport. Although it remains unclear how or where Russell gained his proficiency behind the stick of the aircraft, he managed to start the engines and take off without seeking permission from the tower. Russell spent the better part of an hour in the air, even doing some loops before he and the aircraft crashed near Ketron Island, a small dot of land with only about 20 permanent residents.
Throughout the incident, Russell spoke to air traffic controllers, at one point even apologizing and describing himself as a “broken guy” with “a few screws loose.”
“I’ve got a lot of people that care about me, and it’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this,” Russell said to the 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 until now.”
It seemed as though he may not have intended to die during some parts of the conversation.
“This is probably, like, jail time for life, huh? I mean, I would hope it is, for a guy like me,” he can be heard saying.
“Well, we’re not going to worry or think about that. But could you start a left-hand turn, please?” The controller replies.
Before long, however, it starts to seem clear that Russell did not intend to survive the incident. He repeatedly announced his intentions to put the aircraft into “a roll,” and shortly before the crash, you can hear one of the controllers seem to say he had successfully completed one, asking that he stop and return the aircraft now that he’d accomplished his goal. At that point, Russell says that he had expected to die during the stunt.
“Congratulations. You did that. Now let’s land that airplane safely and don’t hurt anybody on the ground,” a pilot in the control tower that was advising Russell can be heard saying.
“Awwww-right. Ah, dammit. I don’t know, man! I don’t know! I don’t want to. I was kinda hoping that was going to be it. You know?” Russell said in return.
While discussion about Russell, and what led him to take his life in such a dramatic way, will certainly warrant further investigation, for a pair of pilots out of the 142nd Fighter Wing of the Oregon Air National Guard, Russell’s suicidal stunt likely came as the call every fighter pilot stationed in the U.S. hopes they never get: being scrambled to intercept a hijacked commercial airliner.
You can see the stolen aircraft doing the roll in this footage, as well as the fighters sent to intercept:
Two of the U.S. military’s fastest fighter jets, F-15C Eagles, were spotted taking off from the nearby Portland National Guard Base with their afterburners engaged by Russell Hill, a local aviation photographer. Soon after he snapped these photos, people in the nearby Eatonville area began reporting hearing sonic booms. Supersonic flight over the United States has been all but completely banned for civilian aircraft and is strictly regulated for capable military platforms.
Rock 41 and Rock 42 scrambling out of PDX this evening pic.twitter.com/6otUX7hkMV
— Sabian404 (@Sabian404) August 11, 2018
For the most part, exceeding Mach 1 is permitted only within certain high altitude flight corridors, over uninhabited test ranges, and of course, in situations that pertain directly to national security. The F-15C is capable of achieving speeds as high as 1,656 miles per hour, nearly two hundred miles per hour faster than the fifth-generation air superiority dogfighter F-22 Raptor, and more than 450 miles per hour faster than the much-touted F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The possibility that the stolen Dash 8 airliner may be used as a weapon reminiscent of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, clearly seemed to demonstrate sufficient reasoning to authorize the use of supersonic speeds as the fighter’s rushed to intercept the rogue aircraft before it could potentially be used in an attack.
If the stolen aircraft had behaved as though it was headed for a densely populated area or target of significant value, it can be assumed that the pilots were not only authorized to close with the Dash 8 at Mach speed, but they would likely also have been authorized to shoot down the stolen plane. The two pilots, who have yet to be identified, were not forced to fire on the aircraft, though some have credited them with “forcing” the stolen plane away from more populated areas through their presence and intentional trajectories. Soon thereafter, Richard Russell and his stolen aircraft crashed without any direct interference from the fighters, killing the troubled man but no others.
Under these tragic circumstances, the fact that no one else was hurt or killed can be seen as a perhaps narrow silver lining around the cloud of smoke and debris that followed.
Featured image: F-15 Eagles, similar to the one shown here, provided show-of-force and overhead coverage for a convoy of International Security Assistance Force troops in Afghanistan who were under attack by enemy forces. After the F-15s arrived, no additional enemy activity was reported. | U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman John Hughel