By Matt Day • The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — The barrel roll that Richard Russell pulled off during his flight Friday evening looked sloppy to experienced pilots.

That the baggage handler completed the trick at all was evidence to some observers that Russell, who died when the Horizon Air plane he stole crashed into an island in South Puget Sound, may have taken lessons or otherwise prepared for his flight.

Stoking the speculation was Russell’s response, captured in audio recordings, to an air traffic controller asking if he was comfortable flying the twin-engine turboprop plane.

“I’ve played video games before,” Russell said. “I know what I’m doing a little bit.”

It’s unclear whether the 29-year-old, a member of a generation that grew up around video games, was joking about his familiarity with a joystick, or leaving investigators a clue as to how he was able to start the aircraft, taxi, take off and complete aerial acrobatics for more than an hour before going down.

Horizon Chief Executive Officer Gary Beck said Russell didn’t appear to have a pilot’s license. Yet aviation instructors, pilots and safety experts suspect he had some sort training, whether from flight-simulator games or lessons.

Mary Schiavo, an aviation attorney and former inspector general of the Department of Transportation, said video of his turns looked smooth, keeping the plane’s nose from veering to one side.

“It looked like he had touched the controls of an airplane before,” she said.

Though Schiavo and other experts think Russell’s flying prowess indicated prior experience, one longtime family friend, who works for the Federal Aviation Administration, said he did not have any knowledge of Russell going to flight ground school in Alaska, where Russell lived before moving to Oregon and, later, Washington. He never saw Russell use a flight simulator and did not know how he figured out how to fly the Bombardier Q400 plane.

“For us it was a shock that he would be able to take off in that,” said Mike Criss, a Wasilla, Alaska, resident who knew Russell.

A Horizon Q400 pilot, speaking on the condition of anonymity, listed some hurdles Russell would have encountered Friday. At the outset, the plane’s controls would have been locked. Starting the engines requires a precise sequence of switches and levers. During acceleration at takeoff, pilots steer left and right with rudder pedals, instead of the obvious control yoke in front of them.

Video games could have helped with some of that.

Games like Microsoft’s Flight Simulator franchise, a favorite of computer desktop pilots for decades, are complex and realistic, rendering models of cockpits full of switches and instruments resembling the real thing.

Enthusiasts can add to the realism with hardware that replaces keyboards with airplane-style controls such as a steering-wheel-like yoke.

The main flight simulation games on the market don’t feature the Q400 Russell flew among their default options for digital fliers, but a community of game developers filled that gap.

“You can learn procedures” from simulators, said Jim Grant, owner of Northway Aviation, which trains private pilots at Everett’s Paine Field. Beyond that, he said, their utility is limited.

Would-be pilots who come to Northway for training sometimes brag about familiarity with flight simulators, Grant said.

“We usually laugh at them,” he said. “Flying an airplane is totally different than playing a game.”

Russell may have picked up some knowledge of the aircraft over the course of his job.

In addition to baggage handling, his work as a gate-service agent included moving aircraft around gates and maintenance areas.

It’s not uncommon in that environment, pilots and aviation experts say, for pilots to chat with ground-crew personnel curious about plane mechanics or cockpit controls.

Once airborne Friday, Russell showed off a basic familiarity with the cockpit, wearing the communications headset, watching the fuel gauge, and talking with an air traffic controller about how to pressurize the plane, a procedure he apparently did not know how to do.

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