The Tragic Story of 'Sky King' Richard Russell

By: Sascha Bos  | 
Richard Russel's first time piloting a plane was also, sadly, his last. Daniel Garrido / Getty Images

In 2018, Richard Russell made news headlines for stealing — and subsequently crashing — a 76-seat passenger plane straight out of Seattle Tacoma International Airport.

Many wondered how he managed to keep the plane in the air without any formal flight training. Others asked what would motivate him to do such a thing in the first place. Here's what we do and don't know.


Content warning: This article discusses self-harm. If you or someone you know needs help, dial 988 or text SAVE to 741741.

Who Was Richard Russell?

Richard Russell (1989-2018) was a ground service agent for Horizon Air, a subsidiary of Alaska Airlines, who infamously stole and fatally crashed an airplane, earning the moniker "Sky King."

According to his blog, Russell was born in Key West, Florida, and moved to Wasilla, Alaska, at the age of 7. Russell met his future wife, Hannah Stracener, while attending Southwestern Oregon Community College in Coos Bay, Oregon.


The couple ran a bakery for three years before moving to Sumner, Washington, to be closer to family. "We consider ourselves bakery connoisseurs and have to try a new one every place we go," Russell wrote. Russell's job with Horizon Air allowed him to travel and visit his family in Alaska more frequently.

While working for Horizon as a ground service agent, Russell also attended Washington State University, graduating with a degree in social sciences in 2017. "Once I earn my Bachelors in Social Sciences I will either seek a management position where I’m at now, or possibly join the military as an officer," Russell wrote at the age of 27.

Sadly, Russell did not live to achieve those goals.


Richard Russell's Unauthorized Flight from Seattle-Tacoma Airport

On August 10, 2018, at 2:36 p.m., ground service agent Richard Russell arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for his scheduled shift of towing planes and cargo for Horizon Air. At 7:19 p.m., Russell climbed inside Horizon Air Q400 aircraft #N449QX.

Being in the cockpit was nothing new for Russell, who had spent the past three and a half years towing planes around the airport and knew how to operate the plane's auxiliary power unit (APU) and maneuver aircraft on land. But that evening, he decided to fly.


At 7:33 p.m., Russell took off from the airport. For the next 1 hour and 13 minutes, Russell — who had no formal flight training — flew around the Seattle area, visiting Mount Rainier and the Olympic Mountains. ("These guys are gorgeous! Holy smokes," he said over the radio.)

He also tried some tricks. "Hey, pilot guy! Can this thing do a backflip, you think?" Russell asked a nearby pilot. After a successful barrel roll, Russell refused to land the plane. "I was kinda hoping that was gonna be it, ya know?"

At 8:46 p.m., his plane crashed on Ketron Island in Puget Sound, and Russell died. He was 28 years old.


What We Do and Don't Know About Richard Russell's Crash

According to an FBI press release, Russell's crash was intentional. "If the pilot had wanted to avoid impact with the ground, he had time and energy to pull the column back, raise the nose and initiate a climb," the press release reads. So why didn't he?

Russell's death came as a shock to his family, and questions remain about his motivations. Here's what we do and don't know about the incident.


Did Russell Know How to Fly a Plane?

Russell did not have a pilot's license or any formal flight training. However, through his job, he had basic knowledge of how to start a plane.

When an air traffic controller asked Russell if he felt comfortable flying the plane, he responded: “It’s a blast, man. I played video games before so, you know, I know what I’m doing a little bit.” According to the FBI, Russell also searched for flight instructional videos online, but his flight knowledge was limited.

When an air traffic controller asked Russell if he was able to tell his altitude, Russell said, "I have no idea what all that means, I wouldn’t know how to punch it in."

Was Russell's Death Intentional?

Russell's death was ruled a suicide. After its investigation, the Medical Examiner’s Office noted that “there is sufficient evidence to conclude that the death was intentional.”

Russell made several statements during the flight that suggested his intention to crash, including "I'm gonna try to do a barrel roll and if that goes good, then I'm just gonna nose down and call it a night."

Did Russell Have an Accomplice?

No, Russell worked alone to steal and crash the aircraft. According to the FBI, "extensive investigative activity failed to reveal any additional subject(s) involved in the planning or execution of the unauthorized flight."

Why Did Russell Steal and Crash the Plane?

Although Russell's motivations remain unknown, there are several theories as to why he may have stolen and crashed the aircraft.

  • Fear of imprisonment: During the flight, Russell expressed concern about the legal consequences of his actions: "This is probably like jail time for life, huh? I mean I would hope it is for a guy like me," he told air traffic control.
  • Fuel anxiety: Throughout his flight, Russell expressed concern that he would run out of fuel, or that something was wrong with his plane. "I’ve got to stop looking at the fuel because it’s going down quick," he said.
  • Physical discomfort and disorientation: Russell experienced lightheadedness and dizziness during his flight and even threw up at one point.
  • Mental health issues: Although the FBI investigation did not find evidence that Russell was suicidal prior to his flight, he hinted at mental health struggles while in the air: “Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it until now.”

Did Russell Like His Job?

Russell enjoyed the travel benefits of his job with Horizon Air, including trips to Alaska to visit his family.

But he also complained about being underpaid: Russell's team was paid below SeaTac's standard $15 minimum wage, a fact he mentioned while in the air: “Minimum wage, we’ll chalk it up to that. Maybe that will grease some gears a little bit with the higher-ups.”

If you or someone you know needs help, dial 988 or text SAVE to 741741. The following recommendations come from the 988 Lifeline.

Warning signs of suicide include:

  • Talking about wanting to die, feeling hopeless, having no purpose, feeling trapped, experiencing unbearable pain or being a burden to others
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or reckless
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide:

  • Do not leave the person alone.
  • Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs, or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.
  • Call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988.
  • Take the person to an emergency room, or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.


The Other Richard Russell

The Richard Russell who stole a plane in 2018 is not to be confused with Senator Richard Russell, who died in 1971 at the age of 73 from emphysema complications at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.

Senator Russell, also known as Richard B. Russell Jr., is known for opposing civil rights legislation including the Civil Rights Act (ironically signed into law by his former protégé, President Lyndon Johnson; Russell also clashed with Lyndon Johnson's Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, over civil rights).


His career in politics began when Russell won a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives in 1920. At age 30, Russell became Georgia's youngest governor of the 20th century. As chair of the Armed Services Committee from 1951 to 1953 and from 1955 to 1969, Senator Richard Russell helped shape the United States' post-World War II national security policy.

Russell coauthored both the National School Lunch Act of 1946 and the segregationist Southern Manifesto (1956).

The Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies at the University of Georgia and the USDA Russell Agricultural Research Center in Athens, Georgia, are named for him.