'Sky King' Richard Russell Stole a Plane in 2018 With No Intention of Landing


Dec. 15 2023, Published 10:50 a.m. ET

The Gist:

  • Richard Russell is known as the "Sky King" because he stole a plane from the Seattle airport in 2018 and crashed it, killing himself.
  • The exact reasons for Russell's theft remain unclear, but his family suspects that he may have been unwittingly suffering from CTE as a result of several concussions he sustained while playing football.
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Content warning: This article mentions suicide.

It's been five years since Richard Russell first stole a plane, and his story has only grown in the years since. Russell, who has become known as the "Sky King" for his daring aerial feats, stole a plane in 2018 and flew it for over an hour before he crashed it in Washington state.

As his story continues to circulate, though, many have tried to understand exactly why Russell decided to fly a plane, and why he seemed to comfortable with the knowledge that he wouldn't be able to land it at the end of his flight.

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Why did 'Sky King' Richard Russell kill himself?

Russell was a 28-year-old employee of Horizon Air in August of 2018 when he stole a plane from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Recordings of his conversations with Air Traffic Control have made it clear that Russell knew he wasn't going to be landing.

“I wasn’t really planning on landing it,” he said. “I just wanna do a couple maneuvers — see what it can do before I put her down, ya know?” he said.

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Russell had been looking up instructional information on how to fly a plane prior to stealing one, and he managed to take off without a hitch. Horizon employees knew there was something wrong almost immediately, and Russell had fairly extensive conversations with Air Traffic Control, including one moment where he apologized to them and hoped that his stunt hadn't ruin their days.

Russell didn't really offer much insight into why he had decided to steal the plane, so the exact reasons for his decision have remained a mystery. His family said that he played football through much of his youth, and sustained several concussions while playing.

They further suggested that Russell may have been struggling with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) without realizing it, which can lead to depression, impulsive decision making, and suicidal ideation.

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Source: YouTube

The closest Russell ever got to an explanation came more in the form of an apology to his loved ones.

“I got a lot of people that care about me, and it’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this,” he said. “I would like to apologize to each and every one of them. [I’m] just a broken guy. Got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it till now.”

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After successfully completing a barrel roll, Richard was once again encouraged to land, and crashed into Puget Sound shortly thereafter. His death was ruled a suicide, and his story began to circulate online as more people learned about the madness and sadness behind this tale.

If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call, text, or message the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Dial or text 988, call 1-800-273-8255, or chat via their website.

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