The real Beebo Russell was a man in despair who spent his final minutes scared, lightheaded, covered in his own sick, seeking a moment of Zen from thousands of feet in the air that never arrived. He’d set in motion a criminal plot he couldn’t walk back, and ultimately resolved to take his own life rather than return safely to the ground.
The internet Beebo Russell is an archetype: a modern-day Icarus whose dramatic dying act has become a blank slate for others to project meaning upon that informs their own lives. They see a working man, broken down by indifferent bosses – a human cog in the airport machinery who suddenly revolted, stole an airplane, buzzed a volcano, sassed air-traffic controllers, and performed air-show stunts in a final milf hookups dogged display of the human spirit. As one member of the Sky King community puts it, “His story’s true Americana.”
The flesh-and-blood Russell would almost certainly have gotten a kick out of his internet alter ego, seeing his exploits become fodder for the same kind of dank expressions of edgy and viral humor he’d collected on Pinterest, and hoped to create himself. Meme World here I come!”
In the end, perhaps, it’s a meme that offers some sense of closure for Russell’s legacy. On a Pinterest board called “Boom,” he’d once pinned a “demotivational” poster from Despair. It features a photo of a snowboarder careening off a towering, rocky cliff and bold capital letters that spell “Regret.”
“It hurts to admit when you make mistakes,” the smaller text reads. “But when they’re big enough, the pain only lasts a second.”
Suicide is preventable. If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
Russell’s employee badge gave him access to both the tug and the remote cargo area. There was no lock on the door of the airplane. The cockpit was not secured. The biggest impediment Russell faced is that maneuvering a parked plane is a two-man job, and he had no accomplice. At 7:15 p.m., he hooked the tug to the front of the Q400, tossed aside the wheel blocks, and boarded the plane. Although trained to start the aircraft’s auxiliary power unit, Russell exceeded all authorization – toggling levers and switches in sequence to fire up the engines. He then hopped out, reboarded the tug, and swiveled the plane toward the taxiway.
Four minutes later there was an update: The pilot sounded suicidal
With a shock of half-groomed brown hair and a face full of freckles, Russell was funny, extroverted, “a handful,” relatives would later say; they all had “Beebo stories.” As a high schooler he hosted booze-free bonfires for friends; on his MySpace page, misbehaving looked like shotgunning cans of Mountain Dew with his bros. In one senior-yearbook photo, he is posed atop a boulder, legs out to the side, his long arms holding up his blocky frame. ”
NORAD was already tracking Russell’s flight. Its Western Air Defense Sector was receiving updates on a 24/7 phone line called the Domestic Events Network, or DEN. The first call from SeaTac came seven minutes into Russell’s flight.
Were there warning signs? Russell was quietly fascinated with flight. “I fly as much as I possibly can,” he wrote in an online profile, listing a “floatplane tour through Misty Fjords National Monument” in Alaska as one of the “most amazing” things he’d done. For a graphic-design assignment at Washington State, he’d made a personal logo – a suitcase with straps reading “Russell Hustle” and a circular blue badge featuring a silhouette of what he described as a “minimalistic Q400,” in the center.
In , he boasted on his blog that he’d “Finally learned Photoshop!
As Russell zoomed over the lush, green southern Puget Sound region, his flight raised alarm. “What the hell?” said a woman recording a cellphone video of the aircraft careening low over an exurban neighborhood. “Holy shit,” added a man’s voice. “It’s a fucking Alaska Airlines Q400. What the fuck is he doing over here?!”
Through a panoply of task forces and subcommittees, TSA had been studying the insider threat since at least 2009. But by the report, TSA’s Aviation Security Advisory Committee was still struggling to formulate a basic definition for the term. Through 23 pages and appendices, the report offered no concrete recommendations except to praise “the DHS ‘If You See Something, Say Something’ campaign” in which “vigilant aviation workers reported suspicious activity to the airport operator.”
As Russell’s exploit unfolded, SeaTac was bedlam. The after-incident report describes how Russell’s theft unleashed an “ad hoc, nonstandard notification of key first responders and executive leadership.” It adds that “attempts to ascertain if the plane was actually stolen caused a delay in contacting law enforcement” including what it describes as a “25-minute lag” in notifying the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force of the potential threat to national security.
“Affirm,” the first pilot said, allowing a chuckle of disbelief. “He cleared the surface of the water by approximately 10 feet.”
Family and friends left a tribute to him on the island where he died. In the years since, he’s become something of a folk hero.
NORAD, by contrast, responded with significant changes. Most important: It empowered its air-defense sectors to act without waiting for approval from higher-ups. “We now allow them to make the ble our fighters,” says Armstrong. “It saves minutes.”
In short, a rupture now exists between the intimate tragedy of his short life and the public interpretation of it. “It happens a lot, where a real thing all of a sudden enters this spin cycle,” Ostrower says, and “it becomes this plotline in the realm of the internet.”