When Richard Russel, 29, crashed on Ketron Island, about 30 miles from the airport, it was suggested that the flight data recorder had burned down. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has managed to recover the black box intact, recovering part of the data on the spot, confirming information received from air traffic control records. According to the data, asked if he needed any help, Russel responded, "Nah, I mean I don't need that much help, I've played some video games before."
Russel was a Horizon Air employee at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for more than three years and had a security clearance to get to the plane. However, he never had a pilot’s license, which concerned the airline's officials. Horizon Air chief executive Gary Beck claimed at a news conference that it was still unclear how Russel managed to take off and fly the way he did. “There were some maneuvers that were done that were incredible manoeuvres with the aircraft,” Beck told reporters. “Commercial aircraft are complex machines. They're not as easy to fly as, say, a Cessna 150, so I don't know how he achieved the experience that he did.”
Ryan Barclay, an aviation expert and founder of Fly Away Simulation, told The New York Times that it is possible that flight simulators or video games could teach someone how to operate the aircraft. “Yes, I believe that a civilian who has a thorough experience of flight simulation could indeed start, taxi and take off an aircraft with no real world pilot experience,” Barclay said. Fly Away Simulation is one such flight simulator, which offers the immersive experience of flight. There are also lots of YouTube videos and video games that offer detailed guides on flying different types of aircraft.
Flying a Q400, a complex turboprop plane, would require additional training on top of the basic requirements necessary for a private pilot’s license, said Richard McSpadden, the executive director of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Air Safety Institute. In his comment to The New York Times, he expressed his disbelief that Russel learned his skills simply from simulations. However, looking at the videos of a Q400 flight and listening to the available recordings he suggested that although Russel didn’t know aviation terminology, he had had enough knowledge to attempt aerial maneuvers.
Videos taken by multiple onlookers on Friday showed the aircraft doing deep dives, loops and at least one upside-down roll. Russel had piloted the plane for a full hour, talking to the air traffic controller the whole time. When asked to land at the nearest military base, Russel refused, yet admitted that the plane was running low on fuel. Seconds before the crash Russel had stated that there was something wrong with the plane’s engines. Most of Russel’s friends and family members still do not understand why Russel did what he did, calling him a “warm, compassionate man" in their official statements. The flight data recorder and pieces of the aircraft were transported to Washington, DC for further analysis.