Family defends man who stole plane

    Wasilla, Alaska (KINY) Richard Russell was described as a good worker and a loyal family man by his family.

    Russell also cracked jokes and complimented the air traffic controller who handled his flight Friday.  He also apologized for causing such a fuss.

    The native of Wasilla, was killed after he stole an Horizons Airplane from the Seattle-Tacoma Airport Friday night and crashed it on an island in Puget Sound.

    The FBI and the NTSB are among the agencies investigating the crash.  Officials said one of the goals of the investigation is to determine if Russell intended to harm anyone and the motive behind the theft.

    Authorities were also surprised at Russell's ability to do acrobatic stunts in the air before the plane crashed.

    The flight data recorder and components of the cockpit voice recorder have been recovered from the plane and are now being examined by FBI experts.

    Another question being asked is how could someone steal a commercial airplane like this and become a threat in the air, 17 years after the 9-11 attacks rocked our country.

    The plane was a Bombardier Q400, a turboprop that seats 76 people, owned by Horizon Air, part of Alaska Airlines. It had been parked at a cargo and maintenance area for the night after arriving from Victoria, British Columbia, earlier in the day.

    Russell, a 3 1/2-year Horizon employee, worked as a ground service agent. His responsibilities included towing and pushing aircraft for takeoff and gate approach, de-icing them, and handling baggage.

    Authorities said he used a tractor to rotate the plane 180 degrees, positioning it so that he could taxi toward a runway. They said it's not clear whether he had ever taken flight lessons or used flight simulators, or where he gained the skills to take off. The plane didn't require a key, but it did require buttons and switches to be activated in a particular order.

    His 75-minute flight during the golden twilight took him south and west, toward the Olympic Mountains. As a flight controller tried to persuade him to land, he wondered aloud about whether he had enough fuel to make it to the Olympics, talked of the beautiful view, and said he had a lot of people who cared about him, apologizing for what he was doing.

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