Air traffic controller praised for staying calm during man's rogue Horizon Air flight

The controller who was behind the radio on Friday during the sky high heist is receiving praise for what is being called an, "exceptional display of professionalism." (Photo: John Waldron)

SEATTLE - Performing under pressure is the name of the game for air traffic controllers at Seattle–Tacoma International Airport. The controller who was behind the radio on Friday during the sky high heist is receiving praise for what is being called an, "exceptional display of professionalism."

It was a scenario air traffic controllers rarely, if ever, have had to face: negotiating a with a suicidal Horizon Air employee who had just stolen a 76-seat passenger plane from Sea-Tac Airport.

Authorities said Richard Russell used a tractor Friday evening to rotate the plane 180 degrees, positioning it so that he could taxi toward a runway. They said it's not clear whether he had ever taken flight lessons or used flight simulators, or where he gained the skills to take off.

The plane didn't require a key, but it did require buttons and switches to be activated in a particular order.

During the radio exchange at one point, Russell complimented the controller: "You are very calm, collect, poised," he said. He said flying was a "blast" and that he didn't need much help: "I've played some video games before."

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“The controller did a really nice job of trying to build a relationship, I think build a rapport and find out his intent,” said Jim Ullman who was an air traffic controller in the Seattle area for almost 27 years.

Ullmann retired three years ago and joined the National Air Traffic Controllers Association as their director of safety and technology.

He said the unnamed controller’s performance was handled with care and a lot composure.

“I thought the entire air traffic controller work force did an amazing job,” Ullmann said.

The team was working to clear the airspace and land airborne planes safely while the incident was underway. The controller calmly tried to reason with Russel during the 75 minutes in the sky before he crashed the plane on Pierce County’s Ketron Island.

He told Russell over the radio, “we are trying to find a place for you to land safely.”

Russell responded saying, “I’m not quite ready to bring it down yet.”

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association released this statement about the incident:

“NATCA recognizes the great work of all of the air traffic controllers and other Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employees at several Seattle-area FAA facilities that handled this incident. It was an incredible team effort marked by a shared commitment to ensuring the safety of all other aircraft in the vicinity. We also commend the military personnel and first responders involved for their difficult and important work.

We especially acknowledge the contributions of the controller who worked this aircraft and communicated with the individual at the controls. This controller works at Seattle Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), an FAA facility located in Burien, Wash., just west of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The recordings of the incident display his exceptional professionalism and his calm and poised dedication to the task at hand that is a hallmark of our air traffic controller workforce nationwide.

All of our NATCA-represented aviation safety professionals are highly skilled and trained to handle these types of emergency situations. Safety is their passion and their focus at all times.

We are saddened by the loss of a life in this incident, while being thankful that there were no other fatalities or injuries. We extend our condolences to this individual’s family.”

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