Out with a Bang: Richard Russell’s Barrel Roll

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Out with a Bang: Richard Russell’s Barrel Roll

The Olympic mountains above Puget Sound, Russell’s picturesque view from his commandeered plane.

The Olympic mountains above Puget Sound, Russell’s picturesque view from his commandeered plane.

STEPHEN REES VIA FLICKR

The Olympic mountains above Puget Sound, Russell’s picturesque view from his commandeered plane.

STEPHEN REES VIA FLICKR

STEPHEN REES VIA FLICKR

The Olympic mountains above Puget Sound, Russell’s picturesque view from his commandeered plane.

By OWEN ROCHE, Opinions Editor

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He was a good person; ask his high school’s track coach. He was a football player, wrestler and discus thrower. He was surrounded by people who cared about him. He was a funny guy. He was an airline worker at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. And he was alone when he died.

He died in a stolen airplane, reduced to fiery wreckage in a crash designed to induce but one fatality: his own. If you think he was simply another addition to the 44,000-plus self-induced deaths in this country this year — you may be right.

Then again, you haven’t heard the rest of Richard Russell’s story.

On Aug. 10, just as the sun began to set on Puget Sound, Richard Russell crashed a stolen, otherwise-empty 76-seat prop plane into an uninhabited island, killing himself in the process. We know from bystander reports that he successfully executed a loop-the-loop and finally lost control attempting a barrel roll. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department has Russell profiled as suicidal, with little elaboration. With that, his life became a statistic: one of the 123 suicides committed each day in the United States in an ever-increasing yearly tally.

But this was no run-of-the-mill suicide. The beautifully twisted tale of Richard Russell’s demise is thought-provoking, the image of the flaming post-joyride wreckage captivating. What amounts to a Cannes-sweeping movie plot — a tale of a broken man, a commandeered plane and a simple desire to go out with a bang — must somehow make this tragic event more than a passing headline in a thoughts-and-prayers world.

However, we know the final minutes of his life through the airplane’s salvaged cockpit voice recorder. Despite its grand fashion, Russell’s death might just be a textbook case. During the back-and-forth between Russell and air traffic control as the latter tried to steer him toward the nearest runway, the vigilante pilot interspersed comments on the picturesque Olympic mountains with rueful self-revelation. His motivations were not grounded in political upheaval or earth-shaking conviction. “Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess,” he can be heard saying. “Never really knew it until now.”

Russell was no terrorist, nor was he out for vengeance. “No, I told you. I don’t want to hurt no one,” he insisted to air traffic control. The only damage he desired to inflict was on himself. He felt alone. Moreover, Russell, in the midst of his heist, felt shame. “I’ve 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.”

The most bittersweet moment of the doomed flight, in any other context, would surely be the most memorable, as Russell looped the plane and flew it upside down for a period of time. He was disappointed, however, radioing to air traffic control, “I was kinda hoping that was going to be it. You know?” His journey had not yet ended in a grand display as he had hoped. Through all his regret and loneliness, Russell wanted to die with style. Why he did so is perplexing — he didn’t need to do any of this if he simply wanted to die. Whether his goal was to send a message or fulfill a dream is unknown.

Perhaps, in the end, his avian acrobatics were one final cry for help. His conversation with air traffic control was not a manifesto, but a final attempt at normalcy and penance for a cornered man.

It’s possible the duality of shocking novelty and grim predictability surrounding Russell’s suicide can send a much-needed message. No one hopes to die in vain, but not many people go out the way he did. Russell doesn’t deserve admiration, and the act of taking one’s own life is no adventure movie jaunt. But if his death — facilitated by a constant and frightening notion that he truly had nothing left to lose — doesn’t scare us, nothing will.

There is a tradition in America of treating mental health as a personal issue and dismissing it as a personality flaw. Richard Russell was an airline worker anyone else would have described as normal, but in his final minutes he knew he was broken and alone. A surefire sign that suicide might be a problem in your country: people get creative with it — and stop to admire the mountains on the way.

It shouldn’t have taken a stolen plane and daredevil flight patterns to reveal to Richard Russell — and everyone around him — that he needed help. Drastic measures, those less daring than Russell’s included, are the results of too many unanswered cries for recognition; for understanding. It takes a community to uplift and acknowledge the individual, and it takes a country to accept mental health as a threat that manifests beneath a façade of normalcy. If an image of the flaming wreckage of a life cut short in style isn’t enough to burn the importance of mental wellbeing into the public consciousness, what is?

Richard Russell, with no formal pilot’s training, took to the skies in a stolen airplane intent on going out with a bang. Some of the most exciting moments of his life were his last. His story is finished. We must be diligent to ensure that those after him can rewrite their endings with recognition, understanding, support and happy landings.