The Wall Street Journal: Seattle plane thief said he had trained on flight simulator, did not plan on landing

The Horizon Air ground worker who stole a twin-engine airliner and took it on a wild ride over Puget Sound said he had experience on personal flight-simulators he called “videogames” and never intended to land the plane.

Some of rogue pilot Richard Russell’s own statements to air-traffic controllers could provide clues to law-enforcement and aviation officials investigating how he managed to perform aerobatic maneuvers in a sophisticated plane.

Russell, who stole the 76-seat turboprop from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Friday night, didn’t have a pilot’s license, according to the airline. But during radio communication with air-traffic controllers who were urging him to land, Russell, 29, repeatedly referred to his experience with computerized flight-simulator programs.

Government and industry air-safety experts said Saturday that the references suggested he had access to personal desktop simulators — perhaps depicting the same Bombardier Q400 model he stole on Friday — that can realistically replicate the performance of aircraft systems, airborne maneuvers and even instructions from air-traffic controllers.

According to an unofficial audio recording of Russell’s radio communication with controllers on Friday, a controller talking on the open channel said that “he is just flying around” and that Russell could use some help controlling the aircraft. Russell quickly responded, “I don’t need that much help. I’ve played some videogames before.” At another point, he said, “I know how to put the landing gear down.” He then added, “I really wasn’t planning on landing it.”

An expanded version of this report appears on WSJ.com.

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