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The man who stole a commercial aeroplane in Seattle, and took his life by crashing it, has become a folk hero to neo-Nazi groups and incels, drafted into a poisonous delusion that is becoming mainstream. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

White nationalists and the ’Sky King’

It was like a dream. A young baggage handler with seemingly no flight experience, and no pilot’s licence, assumes control of a large, turbo-prop aircraft, taxis to the runway and takes off.

It was Friday evening at Sea-Tac, the United States’ ninth-busiest airport, in Seattle. Richard Russell, 29, was employed there to handle baggage, clean and de-ice aircraft, and operate the tug tractors that push aircraft from the terminal before their taxi. 

One of those craft was a Bombardier Dash 8 Q400, a 100 foot-long turbo-prop built for a little more than 70 passengers, owned by Horizon Air, a sister carrier of Alaska Airlines. Unlike larger passenger jets, an “airway” or external flight of stairs isn’t required for entry – the craft has its own in-built case. The specifics of Russell’s entry are not yet publicly known.

The air traffic control (ATC) recordings suggest authorities quickly realised they had a rogue craft on the tarmac. No takeoff permission was granted. ATC enacted a “ground hold” – which lasted until the plane’s destruction – and ordered incoming flights to divert.

The Q400, used largely for short regional trips, is sophisticated machinery. The takeoff protocol is complicated and particular, requiring up to nine steps, yet Russell understood it. During takeoff he vomited – a fact he’d later joke about with ATC. No one else was laughing. Within minutes, two US Air Force F-15C jets were scrambled from Portland, breaking the sound barrier to intercept the rogue aircraft. For an hour they shepherded it and Russell, encouraging him to move away from land and over water.

Early in the exchange between Russell and ATC, staff calmly asked him if he needed help flying the craft. “It’s a blast, man,” he said. “I’ve played some video games before, so I know what I’m doing a little bit ... Everything’s peachy keen. Just did a circle round – it’s beautiful.”

If this seemed optimistic, Russell quickly suggested the eventual outcome. “Wouldn’t know how to land it,” he admitted. “Wasn’t really planning on landing it.”

The recordings are extraordinary – for both Russell’s fluctuations between despair, cheerfulness and apology, and for the ATC’s patient, unflappable guidance. By this point, ATC staff were joined by pilots to help Russell land the craft. Successful “talkdowns” have happened before, but only in light aircraft. There was no precedent for a non-pilot being remotely instructed in the landing of a commercial passenger plane. Of course, ultimately it wouldn’t matter.

“I got a lot of people that care about me, and it’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this,” Russell said. “I would like to apologise to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy; got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it until now.”           

For an hour, shadowed by military jets, Russell flew erratically over the picturesque Puget Sound. He astonished locals, some of whom assumed it was a rehearsal for an airshow, others who assumed something more sinister. “That’s an Alaska Airlines Q400,” one local is heard saying on a video as the aircraft flies low over homes. “What the fuck is that doing here?”  

As he flew, Russell performed aerobatics. “I’m gonna do this barrel roll real quick,” he told ATC.

“Well, no need to do that,” they replied gently. “If you could just start a turn to the right. And then I’ll tell you when to stop turning, and then you can keep it level from there.”

But Russell is committed. “I feel like I need to be… what do you think, like, 5000 feet at least to be able to pull this barrel roll off?”

A minute later, a local man, John Waldron, filmed Russell execute a massive loop-the-loop manoeuvre, levelling out a mere 100 feet (30 metres) above water. A pilot in the control tower told him: “Congratulations – you did that. Now let’s land that airplane safely and don’t hurt anybody on the ground.”

“Awwww-right,” Russell said. “Ah, damn it. I don’t know, man! I don’t know! I don’t want to. I was kinda hoping that was going to be it, you know?”

ATC continued to give Russell landing options until, an hour after takeoff, he plunged the craft into a sparsely populated island in an apparent suicide.

The US government’s report into the September 11 terrorist attacks said that, among other errors, the tragedy demonstrated a failure of imagination. It may be hard to blame authorities for the same thing here – for failing to imagine Russell finding the skill, luck and opportunity to commandeer a 100 foot-long commercial plane, avoid a catastrophic collision, and perform aerobatics for an hour before the end.

Russell’s bizarre, tragic flight asks questions of security, though as the veteran pilot and aviation writer Patrick Smith noted this week: “A New York Times headline says the incident ‘Raises Troubling Security Questions’. Actually, it doesn’t. But on and on we go: always the new ‘threat,’ the new scare, the new loophole, in our security-obsessed culture and media. It should go without saying that certain airline workers are always going to need, and have, cockpit access and knowledge of how a plane works. What exactly are we supposed to do? Calm down, for one. The Times are correct that an insider threat does exist, and always has. This particular kind of threat, however – the idea of random employees getting hold of planes – shouldn’t be overplayed.”

 

Almost immediately, Richard Russell became a folk hero for certain men. They were white men, largely, inspired by what they saw as Russell’s existential liberation. Treatises flourished on social media, songs were written. Russell was dubbed the “Sky King” and he became – in certain online recesses – a phenomenon.

It was more than dubious romanticism. His martyr status was sealed by two comments Russell made to ATC as he made his flight. “Hey, do you think if I land this successfully Alaska will give me a job as a pilot?” Russell asks.

“You know, I think they would give you a job doing anything if you could pull this off,” air traffic control responds.

“Yeah, right! Nah, I’m a white guy.”

This comment struck the first nerve. The second was pinched when Russell said: “Ah, minimum wage. We’ll chalk it up to that. Maybe that will grease the gears a little bit with the higher-ups.”

Russell had become an unwitting cipher for profound and destructive anxieties. Trump’s America had a hero.

“Rich moved us because it was a heartfelt ‘F you’ to clown world wage slavery,” wrote one blogger. “A lot of us would love to do what he did but don’t want to die or end up in jail for years so we soldier on through this globohomo tyranny. Sky King had the courage/depression to go all the way.”

And another: “This man deserves to be in the history books. A martyr exposing anti-white discrimination.”

Under tribute videos, there were thousands of such comments.  

 

In self-imposed exile in the unrecognised Eastern European microstate of Transnistria, a sliver of land in eastern Moldova, someone named “weev” is lonely, anxious and medicated. The stress of exile is amplified by the burden of serving as webmaster for the world’s largest neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer. “Every day, 24 hours a day, I am on call,” he wrote this week. “I serve so many sites with billions of page views in so many different languages and right now the amount of stuff I have on my plate has me beyond my limit ... There has not been a single day in years that I have stepped away from a computer for a 24-hour period, even though every day I want to turn this motherfucker off and go out into the wilderness to kill animals from tools I fashion myself. White men weren’t meant to live like I do.”

“Weev” is the online tag for Andrew Auernheimer, a 32-year-old hacker, fugitive, white supremacist, defensive bearer of Jewish heritage, and troll of notorious and astonishing repugnance. He is also a man profoundly moved by the antics of the Sky King.

Auernheimer served time in 2013–14 for identity theft, before being released on a legal technicality. He emerged from prison with a large, ornate swastika inked on his chest. He is due in a US court early next year for his part in the brutal harassment of a Jewish woman – one reason he’s been shuttling between countries that have no extradition treaties with the US. Auernheimer is alleged to have left on the woman’s voicemail the words: “You fucking kike whore – this is Trump’s America now.” She received multiple calls that were simply the sound of gunshots.

Auernheimer helped organise the Unite the Right rallies held in America last year, which culminated in the killing of young anti-racism protester Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia. Via online chat forums, Auernheimer organised his fascist comrades to harass mourners at her funeral. In 2016, having remotely commandeered hundreds of printers across American university campuses, Auernheimer had the machines issue the following statement: “I unequivocally support the killing of children. I believe that our enemies need such a level of atrocity inflicted upon them and their homes that they are afraid to ever threaten the white race with genocide again. We will not relent until far after their daughters are raped in front of them. We will not relent until far after the eyes of their sons are gouged out before them. We will not relent until the cries of their infants are silenced by boots stomping their brains out onto the pavement.”

Rape and murder is integral to Auernheimer’s vision of terror and racial salvation – he has praised mass killers Dylann Roof and Anders Breivik. But pale, scruffy, bearded and radiating an inviolable self-satisfaction, Auernheimer doesn’t resemble the chiselled skinheads of American History X. He is a particularly modern neo-Nazi, employing computer code to help “white insurgency” and publishing video sermons as the self-anointed “iProphet” – a sort of neo-Nazi Jesus Christ.

Entombed in a dank room far from home, it’s modernity that troubles Auernheimer. He’s in a bind. His particularly modern commitment to white liberation has enslaved him. Those computer cables now snake around his throat, constricting his will to a purer life. It’s a cruel irony. White men “weren’t meant to churn away at the same task day in day out endlessly”, he wrote this week. “We were born to conquer ... We live in a world that forces us into conditions that are unbearable. The basic biological urges of every species in the world are demonised in white men. White men are denied their own fertile women. White people’s drive for exploration is deemed imperialism and colonialism ... They push us into slavery and misery, and now a generation of millennial men is arriving at midlife with no attachments, nothing to live for, and no hope of advancement out from serving a supporting role in the lives of people who are not fit to be the protagonists of this universe. And Richard Russell, the Sky King, was explicitly aware this was the case for his own life, distinctly because he was white.”

By Auernheimer’s own account, expressed in 4chan posts earlier this year, he is struggling. “Listen man, I miss america every day. I just had someone bring me mcdonalds from another country by train. I have totally failed to learn conversational Russian. I can pay my bills and pick up women but i cant ever have a real discussion with anyone about anything… I pretend on video that it doesn’t get to me because i have an obligation to appear strong and not falter for the youth, because video soundbytes are what most of the public sees and I don’t want kids thinking that my life in exile is total despair and I’m miserable, but it is and I am. I’m fucking lonely and I hate it…”

In Auernheimer’s head, his burden is born of self-sacrifice, not self-destruction. His exile is that of the martyr, not the abusive criminal. There is a type of disordered personality for whom facts cannot penetrate, whose self-serving fever dreams bend the world until it conforms with them. And so from his room of cables, computer screens and spent packets of modafinil, weev dreams – just as his mythic Sky King had dreamed. Specifically, he dreams of becoming a pirate – an old-fashioned, skull-and-cross-bone kind – because “the sea seems like something I could have a shot at controlling significant swaths of”.

Every day, he says, he fantasises of imperiously ruling the oceans rather than campus printers. “Every ounce of my body tells me to become the terror of the 7 seas, going out on the water with as much weaponry [as] I can and progressively stealing more boats until I have a neo-Nazi navy off the coast of North Africa sinking every rapefugee ship as a deterrent to all who might participate in the invasion of Europe... Of course, I don’t because I have to keep your racist Internet online, and I can’t do that if the navies of several major nations were tasked to hunting me down and ensuring I die in a naval conflict.”

If this seems extravagantly deluded, the Sky King offered him inspiration. “When I saw this guy, 29 years old, about in the same period of life as I am in, stealing a plane just to do a barrel roll for once in his life, it spoke to me. Rich is doubtless the sanest of all his colleagues. He is the only person whose natural instincts remained unbounded enough by television and public schools and drugs enough to call him to greatness. We won’t ever know the names of anyone that he worked with, but we’ll remember this guy every year like we do other vehicular heroes like Heemeyer and Andrew Stack. Not all martyrs see divinity, but at least Rich tried.

“And the world is going to have to live with the consequences of Rich’s generation of white men coming to a sudden realisation that it is better to die as Icarus than live as servant to in a hell run by baby-murdering, child-raping kikes intent on wiping their race out of existence. So August 10th every year I’m going to remember the Richard Russell the Sky king, the man whom modernity could not tame.”     

Auernheimer has succumbed to a delirium, where his image of the Sky King and Hitler reside as icons. It doesn’t matter that this dream-maker is a medicated hacker who yearns for some imagined pre-industrial virtue. It doesn’t matter that he’s a pallid, mentally ailing dweeb who thinks the only thing stopping him from becoming a fearsome commander of a Nazi flotilla is web management.

It doesn’t matter, because the delirium resists facts and coherency. Richard Russell – the Sky King – was an immediate folk hero in the swelling online meets of neo-Nazis, white nationalists, sovereign citizens, radical anti-capitalists, libertarians and incels. It is a disparate bunch, bonded by extremes of anxiety and contempt. “Underpaid and overworked, passed over for endless third world diversity hires,” reads one typical comment. “Unable to belong to a community. Hated and ridiculed by foreigners in your own country. Offered no recourse or redemption. What else is there to do but fly away?”

Only recently, it would have struck me as absurd to quote from the bleak vestiges of online comments and fringe blogs. No longer. The delirium is growing – it is becoming mainstream. At home, a former head of government invites a violent, self-avowed neo-Nazi on live television as peer and policy analyst. A senator gives his maiden speech to a passionate endorsement of the White Australia policy, and unapologetically uses the words “final solution” in reference to immigration. The Overton window now encompasses everything.

 

For many, the Sky King – a fantastic construction, not a man – will long be remembered. He joins the ranks of Marvin Heemeyer, another of Auernheimer’s martyrs. Aggrieved by a lost rezoning battle with local government, Heemeyer believed he had God’s sanction to cut a swath of destruction through his small Colorado town. He did this by reinforcing a bulldozer with steel-plates and cutting gun-slots into which he placed rifles. Then he began his vengeful path, destroying the buildings and homes of institutions and individuals he thought had wronged him.

After destroying a widow’s home, a library and the office of the local newspaper, Heemeyer shot himself dead. Some saw a martyr, an ingenious David standing up to the rapacious Goliath. The editor of the newspaper saw it differently. “I’ve seen that the way people have venerated Marv and praised him after the fact – without even really knowing what happened or the facts of the situation – has been repeated in many other rampages and tragedies in America since then.”

This veneration is a symptom of the delirium. And if I once thought it unlikely that Australia could replicate America’s, I am no longer sure.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 18, 2018 as "Flying in the face of reason". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.