I am going to interrupt my stream of Ercoupe related blogs to comment about an incident and the fellow at the center of the incident. And then ponder what the world has become for many people. This has been a long time coming but the FBI has released its report and now we know in the end he chose to dive the plane into the island.
Recently in the Seattle area a ramp worker stole a 90 passenger turboprop plane, flew it around the area, did some remarkable acrobatics and then crashed on a lightly occupied island in the sound. He remained in contact with the tower at SeaTac the entire time and the conversation was recorded and heard by many. A quick search of YouTube will find you that and countless “tributes” to him.
I was in the area at the time and I saw the media explosion in the area. The tower conversation was available almost immediately after he was a flaming crater on Ketron Island. I found this act really affected me for many reasons I hope to share here. First, who was Richard Beebo Russel?
Richard “Beebo” Russel
He was young, only 29. All accounts had him as a friendly fellow, generous, religious and very likable. He was known as an excellent football player when he was younger. He was married and even ran a bakery in Oregon with his wife for years. The move up to Seattle to be closer to family. He had an active video blog where he showed his travels that were made possible by the benefits of his airline employer. He even made some amusing videos about his work on the ramp. We’ll talk about that shortly. I showed some interest in joining the military and was in college. So from the outside, a hard working decent guy that was succeeding in life. So how does a fellow like that end up in smoking hole on a nearly empty island in the Puget sound? We can never know for sure but this wasn’t a spontaneous act.
First lets look at the daily grind he faced to make ends meet (assuming he was making those ends meet). He was working on the ramp for Horizon Air. This airline had managed to get an exception from the Seattle minimum wage law so he was making less than $15 an hour. In fact Alaska Airlines sued when the minimum wage laws passed so they can pay a starting wage of $11.74 an hour. I’m not going to talk about minimum wage laws but Russell was in a situation where he was making less that the McDonalds workers inside the terminal. He was outdoors, in the rain doing grueling physical labor. You cannot survive in Seattle on $11.74 an hour, much less raise a family. Living outside Seattle directly like he did made it less horrible but his finances must have been a nightmare. He mentioned minimum wage in his conversations with the tower during his flight. Another thing that I found odd was he had been married for some time and no children. This strikes me as unusual for someone with a religious background like his. We’ll never know what was going on there either. But despite outward appearances Beebo had some pressures. All the folks that have talked about him make it seem like he was someone that always showed the world a happy face no matter the circumstance. Easy going and the class clown were things often shared.
What else do we know, he loved aviation. He fiddled with flight sims or at least video games. He trained and was qualified as a member of the tug crew so he learned some basics of the airplanes he moved. Things like how to start the auxiliary power units (APU) and the basics of steering the airplane on the ground. He would have learned to use the radios to talk to ground control. What he probably wasn’t taught was how to start the engines or how any of the other flight controls would have worked. He interacted with some of the pilot so he may have been shown more. But one thing to share. Most people if they were just sat in an airplane’s cockpit like the one he stole would NOT be able to get it started and taxi it out to the runway. He had prepared for his over time. Even finding the right plane and the right time required some planning. He had to find a plane with fuel, someplace where no one was on it or around it. He had to take a tug, drive it across the airport, pull the plane around to allow it to taxi out. He did that midday and wasn’t detected. I was then several hours before he got it started and then made his run for the runway. To take the plane for his final flight.
I don’t think he ever really thought about landing it. I think once he started taxing out he knew he was in it in the end. A plane like that flown for most of his flight would have been pretty simple to fly. He did finally ask for some help getting the cabin pressurized. He would have been light headed at times given he was over 10 thousand feet for some of his flight. He flew over Mount Rainier which is over 14 thousand feet and then over the Olympics which are lower at closer to 8 thousand feet. Then for the most part he was much lower. He didn’t know much about the rate he was going to burn off fuel and I wouldn’t be surprised if he left the plane at maximum power for the entire time. I think in the end he flew for around 45 minutes. Towards the end of he flight I think he knew he wasn’t going to make any attempt to save himself or the plane. He just wanted to end it in a way that didn’t hurt anyone. He did at least one major bit of acrobatics that was caught on video by a number of people. He said he wondered if he could do a “back flip” whatever that is. He said he was going to try a barrel roll and ended up doing something closer to a split S. He pulled out of that below 500 feet over the water. He said after he thought that was probably going to be it surprised that he pulled it off. He made a comment about fuel, a possible engine problem then shortly after folks on the ground the two pilots in the F-15s following him reported him crashing on Ketron island. With that final moment Sky King was born. Just a guy who wanted to do a final barrel roll into a sunset.
In the end he said he’d hope his moment would have lasted longer and stated he’d never get hired as a pilot because “he was a white guy”. I think there are some things that make this story worth discussing. Firstly, Richard went out with class. He did it not ranting about anything, he had some fun on the way out and did it without hurting anyone else. Lets compare that with some other suicide by plane incidents. MH370 resulted in 239 people dying. A Germanwings copilot crashed his plane into a mountain killing 140 people. Several days after Richard’s flight a disgruntled corporate pilot stole his boss’s plane and tried to crash it into his house to kill his wife. He missed his house by the way. Russel didn’t try to pin his choice on anyone else. He owned it.
So Beebo snapped. Well I think that isn’t quite right. He took time and planned his exit. I am sure stealing this particular plane was an “in your face” to his employer. What were the factors that got him planning this end? He joked that he wouldn’t get a job as a pilot because he was “a white guy”. We are in the beginning of a massive pilot shortage. So why would he think becoming a pilot would be impossible for him. Remember, this is a guy trying to maintain a family in the greater Seattle area in less than $12 an hour. You need a college degree and a lot of training to get into that cockpit. There is no doubt the amount of assistance to get into college is limited for a “white guy”. If you don’t believe it do some research. Major universities are opening admitting they skew their submissions to “minorities”. There are even lawsuits. Scholarships are all targeted to women and minorities (but not asians!). The U.S. air traffic control system was actively refusing white male applicants. Yes, things for “a white guy” these days can be look pretty stacked against you.
Now onto what it would have cost Beebo to get that pilot rating if he had gotten that college degree. Beebo would have spent somewhere around $100K. Most pilots will spend years building hours by instructing or taking almost any pilot job available. It is a struggle. Some manage by entering the service but the bar for that is high. And of course, you are in the service! So I think it would have seemed impossible for a guy making less than minimum wage with a wife. While things are slowly changing as some carriers are taking in people with no flight experience to train from the ground up. But I think the chances of being lucky enough to get in on that opportunity were nearly zero for Russell. He was already nearly 30. Carriers are going to want to maximize the number of years they could get out of a new pilot of they make an investment like that.
So in the end we saw a broken guy go out with a flourish. Beebo, I wish I knew you, we’d fly Woodstock the Ercoupe to Pt. Townsend eat a great breakfast and look at planes in the museum. I hope you are in a better place. We did love that barrel roll!
Blue Skies, Beebo, Sky King!