A commercial airline pilot says he encountered Richard Russell — the Horizon Air baggage handler who stole a passenger plane from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and took it for a wild 75-minute flight before crashing last month — at the helm of an unoccupied aircraft a year earlier, according to interviews and emergency-dispatch audio recordings obtained by the Seattle Times.
Joel Monteith, a pilot for SkyWest Airlines, told an emergency dispatcher in August that after he saw Russell and a second man “pointing and flipping switches” inside the empty SkyWest jet at the airport last year, “I went over and confronted them, and I said, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing in here?’ ”
The men told Monteith they were training to use the plane’s auxiliary-power unit so they’d know how to tow it as part of their jobs, he said, “but they kind of … started to get up and then leave the airplane when I confronted them. So, that was kind of suspicious.”
Monteith’s conversation with the dispatcher about his previous encounters with Russell is among dozens of audio recordings of emergency-dispatch communications recently obtained by The Times under a state Public Records Act request that provide more insight into the Horizon incident from the time it was unfolding and during its immediate aftermath.
Monteith also reported to the dispatcher that he recalled Russell had been “inside my cockpit” of an Embraer 175 jet airliner on at least one other occasion, “asking questions (and) wanting to do my flows, which is the preflight preparation I do for takeoff.”
“I don’t think the thing with this guy is like a plot that this dude just came up with like overnight,” Monteith added. “I think that maybe this guy had been thinking about doing this for a long time and then maybe the Q400 that he took was just an airplane of opportunity.”
During an interview Tuesday, Monteith, a 55-year-old Tacoma resident with 30 years of piloting experience, confirmed making the report, but he said no investigator has since followed up with him.
“I’m actually kind of surprised about it,” Monteith said. “I haven’t heard back from Pierce County, and the FBI hasn’t contacted me, either.”
An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment about the pilot’s report, citing in an email Tuesday an “ongoing investigation.” A spokeswoman for Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air did not respond to The Times’ request for comment.
Monteith reported the encounters to an emergency dispatcher in Pierce County the day after Russell’s solo flight in the Air Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 that he’d commandeered from an airport cargo area, taxied onto a runway and lifted off on the evening of Aug. 10.
Russell, a married 29-year-old Alaska transplant who lived in Sumner, pulled off several aerobatic stunts during the unauthorized flight before the plane crashed into the woods on sparsely populated Ketron Island in South Puget Sound.
During a rambling, recorded conversation with ground control, Russell described himself as a “man in crisis,” but also calmly chatted about such observations as Mount Rainier’s beauty and how to find an orca that for days had garnered national attention while carrying its dead calf in Puget Sound.
The unauthorized flight shut down Sea-Tac Airport traffic, prompted two F-15 fighter jets in Portland to break the sound barrier while scrambling to the scene and drew dozens of awe-struck witnesses to call 911.
It also left pilots and other aviation experts speculating as to how Russell, a low-paid ground-services employee with no apparent pilot experience, knew how to fly the 76-seat passenger turboprop plane and pull off the jaw-dropping aerial maneuvers.
The chaotic joy ride also exposed a serious breach at one of America’s busiest airports that could have nationwide ramifications on airport-security procedures.
“I think this episode speaks to a bigger security problem for the industry as a whole,” Monteith said Tuesday. “What’s to keep a terrorist from gaining a security clearance under the veil of airline employment and hijacking an airplane? That’s a bigger concern for the FAA and NTSB.”
The FBI and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) continue to investigate exactly what happened, but so far have revealed few details publicly.
Other recordings obtained by The Times include a firefighter’s radio transmissions from the crash site, informing dispatch that at least one of the airplane’s flight recorders appeared to be destroyed or missing, and another report made by a former co-worker to inform authorities about Russell’s prior training in moving the airplane.
A spokeswoman for the FBI’s Seattle office noted Tuesday the agency previously released a statement that the aircraft’s flight-data recorder and “components of the cockpit voice recorder” were recovered from the crash site and have since been taken to the NTSB’s laboratory in Washington, D.C., for processing.
During the recording of the call from Russell’s former co-worker, he told a dispatcher that Russell was “not a maintenance guy, he’s just a ramper.”
But the man added Russell recently had been trained for the Tow Team, which would’ve taught him “how to turn the airplane on and work some of the systems so that you can get it towed from one gate to the other.
“That’s how he knew how to turn on the airplane and start the engines and all that,” the man said.
In a phone interview Tuesday, the 27-year-old man, who asked not to be named for fear it might harm his aviation career, said he called authorities to “set the record straight” on misinformation in early media reports that described Russell as a maintenance worker, and to further explain how Russell knew how to move aircraft.
“I was expecting somebody to call me back,” the man said. “But nah, no one ever did.”
Monteith also provided further details Tuesday about his encounters with Russell, saying he immediately recognized Russell’s photo during news reports of the Horizon flight incident.
During the first encounter, Monteith said Russell “seemed unusually friendly and chatty” when he followed Monteith to the aircraft he was piloting about a year before he stole the airplane.
“So then he asks, ‘Do you mind if I watch your flows?’ And at that point, I got a little hair or hackle up on my back and thought, ‘You know, there’s no reason why he would need to know how to set up this aircraft,’ ” Monteith recalled.
The pilot said he began stalling on other tasks until other members of the flight crew showed up and Russell finally left.
On a later occasion last year, Monteith said he saw Russell in the captain’s seat of another SkyWest jet joined by a fellow Horizon ramp agent, prompting him to confront them.
“To see anybody in the cockpit of one of our airplanes without a SkyWest representative present is highly unusual,” he said. “So I kind of just went over and said, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing in here?’ ”
After they told him they were training to tug the aircraft, Monteith said he told them: “You look like you’re doing more than that and don’t need to be there.”
Monteith said he didn’t report the incident at the time because “it’s kind of a delicate issue.”
“We don’t have a specific security mandate saying those with clearance can’t be in a plane’s cockpit,” he said. “And if these really were legitimate guys and they’re authorized to be there, I would potentially be creating an abrasive situation.”
After reporting his encounters with Russell to authorities last month, Monteith said he also relayed them to his employer and believes SkyWest is reviewing the reports.