NORAD lost him on the radar. Radio communication fell silent. But by 7:48 p.m. the Q400 had circled the back side of the volcano and was traveling toward the Seattle metro at what the military would describe as “accelerated speed.” Russell had been in the air for approximately 15 minutes. Only now did Western Air Defense seek authorization to scramble F-15s. But NORAD’s continental U.S. chief of combat operations ordered only a “suit up” by the pilots.
As Russell regained audio contact, his banter had less manic swagger. He’d hit turbulence cruising over Rainier – and lost his lunch. “Sorry, my mic came up. Regret was starting to creep into his voice, along with empathy: “Man, I’m sorry about this,” he told the controller. “I hope this doesn’t ruin your day.”
I threw up a little bit,” he said
Beebo gave the controller his legal name, “Richard Russell,” and asked for advice: “What do you think I should do, FAA guy?” The controller tried to gauge Russell’s competence: “Just flying the plane around, you seem comfortable with that?” Russell’s braggadocio bounced back: “Oh, hell yeah! It’s a blast, man. I’ve played video games before,” he said, “so, ya know, I know what I’m doin’ a little bit.”
“Everything’s peachy,” he insisted. “Just did a little circle around Rainier. It’s beautiful.” Then, referencing the mountain range separating the Puget Sound from the Pacific, he added: “I think I got some gas to go check out the Olympics.”
It seemed like such miserable work
Moving to Washington in 2015, Russell quickly found a gig as a ground-service agent with Horizon Air, a regional carrier operated by Alaska Air Group, which services cities from Fairbanks to Austin. It was the opposite of a dream job. “I always felt bad for the guys and gals who handled luggage,” he wrote in a blog entry in 2017. “Every time I traveled I would look out my plane window and see these sullen-looking individuals . . . throwing bags into a cart. ”
But for Russell, the job literally offered a ticket out. Free-flight benefits opened up the world – a jaunt to the Yucatan with the boys, trips to Ireland and France with Hannah, and most important, tickets to Alaska, which still felt most like home. “Flight benefits,” Russell wrote, “were my last hope of seeing my beloved family and state on a regular basis.”
In an online profile, Russell wrote he was passionate about “mountains, pastries, and craft beer.” He aspired to visit every national park, and friends from work recalled him often having a book in hand. Little about his life seemed political, though he’d “liked” a Facebook page for Ben Carson. Outside of work, Russell’s life was busy. In , he graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from Washington State. His blog entries, written for a communications class, described aspirations to join the military, law enforcement, or even management at Horizon.
A video project for that class contrasted the drudgery of his work life in the soggy Pacific Northwest to the global travel it enabled. “I’m Beebo Russell,” he said, “and I’m a ground-service agent.” Continuing in a chipper voice-over as bags descended from a plane on a conveyor belt, he added with crisp comic timing, “That means I lift a lot of bags. Like, a lot of bags – soooooooo many bags.” Over a selfie in the rain, Russell said, “I usually learn tids here now have to work outside in this. But it allows me to do some pretty cool things too. . . . It evens out in the end.”