WASILLA — Connections to Alaska and the Mat-Su Valley continue to surface as authorities investigate the theft of an airplane at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Friday night, and the subsequent death of a former Wasilla man.
Authorities say Richard “Beebo” Russell, a 2008 graduate of Wasilla High School and Horizon Airlines employee, took the plane for an hour-long flight before crashing on Ketron Island south of Seattle. Russell died in the crash on a portion of the island owned by a former Alaska family with business connections in the Valley.
Gary Lundgren, chairman of Global Finance and Investments, said his family owns about 65 percent of Ketron Island, including the undeveloped piece of land where Russell crashed the plane and died.
“It was a shock to me to see he had originally been from Wasilla,” Lundgren said by cell phone Saturday night from his home in Panama. “It’s a strange coincidence.”
Lundgren said Ketron Island is sparsely populated, with 12 to 14 homes and about 18 people living on the island, which is separated by only about a half-mile of water from Stellacoom, Washington, home of about 6,000 people.
He said his family bought the property from Donald Morris, another Alaskan, in about 1973. The Morris family had owned the property since 1945.
“We confirmed with other residents on the island that the crash site was on our property,” Lundgren said.
Lundgren said the crash was on the south end of the island.
“It’s a real coincidence. It really surprised me,” Lundgren said. “We’ve got a presence in Wasilla.”
Lundgren’s company owns Alaska Mini Storage and Wasilla Business Plaza.
Lundgren also battled the city of Wasilla for years in courtrooms in a land dispute over property where the Menard Sports Center now sits.
“That was in litigation, it went on for nine years,” Lundgren, now 77, said.
Lundgren, who grew up in Fairbanks, currently owns 11 pieces of property in the Mat-Su Borough.
Lundgren said his children now look after the family’s Ketron Island property.
“My son was just there a week ago,” Lundgren said.
Lundgren said he was also a licensed twin-engine pilot in Alaska for about 20 years and is amazed Russell was able to get the plane in the air.
“I can’t imagine how he was capable of even starting those turbine engines, much less taxing and taking off,” Lundgren said.
According to Alaska Airlines, the plane was stolen at about 8 p.m. Friday night and flown toward Puget Sound. Air traffic controllers were able to make contact with Russell as he flew. The correspondence was recorded, and an audio file was obtained by the Frontiersman.
“I want to see what this weather is going to be like in the Olympics,” Russell told air traffic controllers, referring to the Olympic Mountains in western Washington, after he was advised to land the plane.
Russell continued to say he hit turbulence near Mount Rainier, “but there’s no clouds hardly.”
Air traffic controllers advised Russell to turn the plane around before he got too close to Mount Rainer. Russell followed with an apology.
“I got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear I did this,” Russell told air-traffic controllers. “I would like to apologize to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy. Got a few screws loose I guess. Never really knew it till just now.”
As air-traffic controls continued to advise Russell to turn the plane and land, Russell carried on.
“Can this thing do a back flip you think?” Russell asked as he started to show concern about the amount of fuel onboard. “I don’t know what the burnout is like on a take off, but it burned out quite a bit faster than I expected.”
Air-traffic controllers urged Russell to listen to help on how to land the plane.
“I don’t need that much help. I’ve played video games before,” Russell said.
Later in the correspondence, Russell said he needed help with pressurizing the cabin so he would not feel so light-headed. Air-traffic controllers again tried to get Russell to land the plane, offering McChord Field in Pierce County, Washington, as an option.
“Man, those guys would rough me up if I tried landing there,” Russell said. “They’ve probably got anti-aircraft.”
Air-traffic continued to try to get Russell to land the plane.
“Not quite ready to bring it down yet, but holy smokes, I’ve got to stop looking at the fuel (because) it’s going down quick,” Russell said.
Toward the end of the correspondence, Russell examined the situation.
“This is probably jail time for life. I would hope it is for a guy like me,” Russell said. “Minimum wage. Chalk it up to that. Maybe that’ll grease the gears with the higher ups.”
And Russell asked again about what the plane was capable of.
“Feel like I need to be 5,000 feet up to pull this barrel roll off,” Russell sad.
Video footage shot by witnesses and shared online Saturday shows the Horizon plane flying erratically above Puget Sound.
In a press conference Saturday, Alaska Airlines officials confirmed the incident, but did not name Russell as the pilot of the plane. Alaska Airlines officials did confirm the death of the pilot, the lone occupant in the plane.
“All of us at Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air are saddened by last night’s unauthorized flight of a Horizon Q400 aircraft that resulted in the loss of life of the individual involved,” Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden said during the press conference Saturday.
Tilden said Alaska Airlines is working with the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Transportation Safety Board as the investigation continues.
“We’re working to find out everything we possibly can about what happened,” Tilden said.
Horizon Air President and CEO Gary Beck said the plane crashed on Ketron Island about an hour after it left Sea-Tac.
“No ground structures were involved in the crash,” Beck said in the press conference.
According to Alaska Airlines, the plane was taken from a maintenance position and was not scheduled for a passenger flight.
“Military jets were scrambled from (Portland, Oregon), but it does not appear that these jets were involved in the crash of the horizon aircraft,” Alaska Airlines officials posted in an update Saturday afternoon.
Gary Howell, who coached Russell in track and field at Wasilla High, said he could not imagine Russell being involved in something like this.
“He was super gregarious, funny, a hard worker,” Howell said. “Really outgoing. He was a little bit goofy.”
Howell said Russell was a fun-loving student-athlete who stayed out of trouble.
“Absolutely great kid. Great family. Leader. Positive. Funny,” Howell said. “He’s an All-American kid. The kid you want to coach.”
Russell’s family also released a statement late Saturday.
“On behalf of the family, we are stunned and heartbroken. It may seem difficult for those watching at home to believe, but Beebo was a warm compassionate man. It is impossible to encompass who he was in a press release. He was a faithful husband, loving son, and a good friend. A childhood friend remarked that Beebo was loved by everyone because he was kind and gentle to each person he met,” the Russell family said in the release.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman sports editor Jeremiah Bartz at firstname.lastname@example.org.