The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is leading the inquiry into how a Horizon Air ground service agent—apparently with no flying experience—was able to steal one of the carrier’s turboprops, take off from a major airport and fly for more than an hour before crashing.

The incident began around 7:30 p.m. Pacific Aug. 10, when a Bombardier Q400 made an unauthorized takeoff from Seattle’s SeaTac International airport. Operations at SeaTac were temporarily shut down and two Air National Guard F-15Cs from the 142nd Fighter Wing in Portland, Oregon, were scrambled to intercept the Q400. They stayed close to the stolen Q400 but did not shoot.

The ground service agent, who had been employed by Seattle-based regional carrier Horizon for about three-and-a-half years, was in communication with SeaTac air traffic control for much of the incident, telling them he did not want to hurt anyone.

In a press conference Aug. 11, the day after the incident, Alaska Air Group chairman and CEO Brad Tilden said it was too early to say what additional security procedures might be implemented “to make this very safe industry even safer,” but Alaska would be a leader on the issue. Horizon is part of the Alaska Group.

Tilden was joined in the press conference by Horizon Air CEO Gary Beck, SeaTac Airport director of operations Mike Ehl and FBI Washington state special agent Jay Tabb. Tilden said the investigation will be led by the FBI, working with FAA, the US National Transportation Safety Board and the airlines.

Tilden did not identify the employee, but media has widely reported that he was 29-year-old Richard Russell and his family issued a statement expressing their shock and grief and describing him as a “faithful husband, loving son and good friend.”

The employee was on duty that evening, Tilden said, and was believed to be in uniform. The 76-seat Q400 was parked in an area known as the cargo 1 line. While the employee had security clearance and was fully credentialed to be in that area, there was no reason for him to go to the aircraft when he did because the aircraft was not scheduled to fly that evening.

The aircraft was parked nose-east on the cargo 1 line, meaning it had to be maneuvered before it could be taxied out. Russell was part of the airline’s tow team and he used a push-back tractor to rotate the aircraft 180 degrees before starting the aircraft’s engine and taxiing it out to the airfield.

How he knew how to start and fly the aircraft is also unknown. Russell did not have a pilot’s license and Horizon’s Beck described the operation of a series of switches and levers needed to start the Q400’s engines as complicated. “We don’t know how he was able to do that; we don’t know how he learned to do that,” he said.

After steering the aircraft out, Russell was in contact almost immediately with ground controllers at SeaTac. He took off at 7:32 p.m. and stayed in communication with ATC on the same frequency until contact was lost about an hour later. In one of his last communications, he said the aircraft was low on fuel. The aircraft, N449QX, crashed on the remote wooded Ketron Island just off the Washington coast.

In the US, airliners are not “locked” the way a car is, and commercial airport security is a multi-level process that includes vetting those who have access to secured areas.

Alaska airline and SeaTac airport require employees with such access to undergo a 10-year criminal background check that is reviewed every two years.

Alaska and Horizon also have an employee assistance program to help with mental health issues and which is open year-round, 24/7.

The FAA ground stop around SeaTac during the incident led to 75 flights being delayed, nine being diverted and five canceled. The ground stop was lifted at 8:40 p.m. local time and normal operations were fully resumed by 1 a.m. the following morning.

Karen Walker/ATW