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King Richard

Richard Russell was an airport ground service worker, a man responsible for towing aircraft about the landing strip, who, one day in 2018, decided to steal a Bombardier Q-400 medium-sized commercial aircraft and take it for a joyride—he performed various stunts, including a very low barrel roll, before he finally crashed the aircraft. As noted in a previous article, Russell achieved posthumous fame, particularly on 4chan, because his act had a certain romance to it—indeed, an iconic picture from “Sky King’s last flight” showed the aircraft as it headed into the sunset; the whole mood evoked the melancholy associated with ’80s nostalgia—with synthwave and long purple twilights.

Indeed, spontaneous fan art even photoshopped Russell’s last ride into the sun into the background of The Traveller, the famous Casper David Friedrich painting of a young man with a walking stick who has scaled a mountain and surveys the misty landscape below. So Russell’s last act was immediately recognised as a romantic gesture, paradigmatic German Romanticism—hence the semi-ironic “Sky King” appellation; for all those NEETs wrapped in their blankies, a few crumbs from their chicken tendies caught in awkward to reach places, Sky King spoke to them. In an ultra-regulated and mundanely safe world, a lone Don Quixote could still make an individual and romantic gesture—there is more to life than being a scheduled tugger for commercial air traffic. With no more than a few hours on a flight simulator, you too can leave a mark—you too can be “a king”, every man can be a king. King Richard, we salute you!

Russell’s act also caught attention from the political angle because in his extensive chatter with air traffic control “the Sky King” replied to one message from the controller with a dismissive: “Nah, I’m just a white guy.” This statement, mid-way into Trump’s febrile presidency, was pounced on by both white nationalists and progressives. For white nationalists, it summed up the white man’s predicament in the contemporary West; his fundamentally disadvantaged state—so that even if he was pulled from NEEThood, he would never amount to more than a ferryman for aircraft; he could never be a pilot, probably due to those damn diversity hires—he is a victim. From the other side, the progressive view was that Russell’s reference to being “a white man” just demonstrated that overprivileged white men cannot deal with the narcissistic wound inflicted after centuries of implicit domination (and exploitation)—and so, when asked to share the toys, they have a massive sulk and go and crash the aircraft.

As it happens, both sides were wrong about this particular exchange. The racial angle was incidental, although not unimportant. If you listen to the entire conversation with the controller, Russell is passive aggressive throughout—and if you look at photos of him he does, sorry to harp on this point, appear to have narcissistic traits. Russell’s communications with the tower are all passive aggressive and the non-verbal message is as follows: “Look at what I’ve done! How about that, eh? What do you make of that? Whatta ya going to do about that? I’m in a plane…and I really shouldn’t be. Crazy, huh? Anything could happen. You get me, this is serious. People could die.”. Indeed, at one point Russell even makes an explicit reference to the fact people’s lives are on the line—as if he were in, well, a disaster movie like Airport (1970); the type of movie in which people really do say, “People’s lives are on the line [won’t someone think of the children?].”. The fact Russell said that—and the intonation he uses, exactly as if he were mocking the melodrama that he secretly wishes to participate in—indicates that at one level his move was about attention.

In reality, nobody says “people’s lives are on the line” because when a junior ground crewman, whose job is basically to park the plane and load the luggage, hijacks an aircraft the fact that “lives are on the line” is self-evident—so nobody says it. Further, the types of people who become air traffic controllers and pilots are selected to be psychologically stable and are additionally trained to remain in quasi-robotic mode in their roles, no matter what happens—all obviously necessary to facilitate the complex and dangerous operation that is intensive commercial jet travel. So, of course, they are not going to “break character” and participate in “the drama” (“OMG, not the children!”)—even if they ever engage in the kind of social fencing Russell was after, they will do so in a minimal and completely understated way, so that for a Hollywood actor it would be almost invisible (“Did he burn me? Was that a burn?”).

The line “people’s lives are on the line” is only deployed in a film to explain a plot point to the audience or to foreground a dramatic development, it is superfluous in real life—real life is not a drama, even “dramatic” events like 9/11 are afterwards recalled as eerily normal; of course, you have watched too many films—there was never going to be dramatic music and a jump cut when the towers fell down, everything else carried on as if nothing had happened; the birds do not care—they flutter up for a moment and come to rest elsewhere.

Russell’s “white man” comment came after he had enquired if the airline would give him a job as a pilot in light of his performance—obviously, a non-serious question like all his other interactions. The real meaning: “Hey, look it’s pretty cool I can fly a plane without ever having had a lesson, eh? I must be pretty smart, smarter than you thought. Bet you never thought the ground crew could do this, eh? No training. Zip. Just played on a flight simulator for a bit and then took off. What do ya think about that, Mr. Highly-qualified-air-traffic-controller?”. Basically, it was the equivalent to if he had said, “Look, no hands!” on his bike—and also a request for approval from people who were certified to know what they were about. The air traffic controller replies in very muted tones, tones of acquiescence slightly tinged with repressed anger, that Russell could have any job he wanted after his performance.

After this, Russell snaps, “Nah, I’m just a white guy.” The controller’s non-verbal expression was really: “Yeah, I’ve got to give it to you—it is pretty impressive that you’ve managed to fly this aircraft with no training; and even without the autopilot you’ve not crashed. On the other hand, you are a fucking selfish asshole who will almost certainly kill himself, may kill other people in the process—and, above all, has fucked up my day.” When Russell replied, “Nah, I’m just a white guy,” the real non-verbal communication was, “You know this is cool, but you won’t give me the recognition I want, so I am going to self-deprecate—perhaps if I do that, you’ll acknowledge me properly.”.

If Russell lived in a Christian country, he might have said, “Nah, I’m just a plain ordinary sinner,” since that would be a socially acceptable way to self-deprecate; in a progressive country, as is America, the national ethos tells people that a primary acceptable means to socially self-deprecate is to foreground your racial privilege—sometimes expressed as noblesse oblige. “Just an ordinary white guy here, mind if I chip in on this with my experiences—after other folks have spoken, of course.” (Speaker possesses a trust fund, a Princeton degree, an internship at a major media company—and is, as you would expect, impeccably polite and self-deprecatory).

So the communication has nothing to do with race, Russell was not “tormented” that he was white—as both white nationalists and progressives will tell you—he was just a narcissistic guy who wanted attention but still kept his communication, even in extreme circumstances, within the accepted social etiquette found in his society. Further, Russell could tell that the air traffic controller’s response was insincere—an attempt to mollify him, to conceal the controller’s real anger—and he reacted to the insincerity with the snippy self-deprecatory racialised reply because he also wanted to signal “don’t give me a phoney response, give me the real thing”. To introduce race into it was a gambit to raise the stakes, since race is always a socially sensitive point. Russell probably hoped he could rile the controller into a more emotional and sincere response, at the very least: “We don’t need to bring race into this, Richard; nothing to do with it!”. But the controller was far too cool to fall into that drama.

Russell secretly hoped the controller would say: “They’re not going to give you a job as a pilot, Richard. They’re either going to throw the book at you or, if you’re very lucky, commit you to a mental hospital—either way, it’s going to be brutal; even if we are impressed you did it—although, frankly, fuck you for messing up my week.” Russell’s reply also acknowledged this in its self-deprecation, though implicitly: “Yeah, but I’m totally fucked now—even if I live. So…”.

All the communication with Russell esoterically takes this form: “Hey, look what I’ve done. Quite something, eh?” Control: “Yes, but what are you doing? We don’t want to be angry and make you do something even worse, but for fuck’s sake stop this bullshit!”. And it was quite something, as the appreciative memes on 4chan demonstrated; almost a Mishima-like artistic act intended to shock and awe, to make people wonder…why would a man do that, why would he end it that way? The communication with Russell is very much the controllers feeling out the situation with implicit exchanges, just the same as if you found someone on a bridge who looked like they were about to jump—for the most part, unless you were me, it would be gentle-gentle (“So, what’s up, big guy?”).

What was different was that the Sky King drama potentially involved other people, not just one man on a bridge—“Lives are at stake here” (yes, except because they are we will absolutely not say that). So the implicit content in the exchange was often: “We hear you, Richard—now, we would just like to know, given you’ve hijacked an aircraft you’re completely unqualified to fly with no obvious aim in view, if, you know, given the erratic nature of this act and your rather melancholy demeanour, if you intend to do anything like crash it into a downtown Seattle tower—or into a suburb. We’d just like a non-verbal hint, because then we’ll have the F-15s shoot you down—nothing personal.”. As it happened, Russell was more into self-destruction—into masochism, the narcissistic feminine vice—than into sadism, into “punishment” for the people who made him suffer.

Actually, Russell did not think people had “done” things to him—certainly not “the anti-white system”. At one point he comments that a lot of people will be disappointed in him for what he has done, effectively that they counted on him and looked to him to achieve. The expression was itself another afternoon soap cliché—and I suspect the reality was that the people around Russell neither counted on him nor particularly cared what he did nor looked up to him. Now, perhaps Russell was so narcissistic that he was unrealistic and deluded about the degree to which people should “appreciate” him—yet I suspect there might have been a kernel of truth there, and it is not unreasonable to appreciate people to an extent; and so his communication with air traffic control was partly a desperate “validate me” appeal, possibly a very awkward way to express a dissatisfaction with his personal life; probably he needed to be more assertive with his wife. Yet, of course, to have an external locus of control is narcissistic; really, you should punch your own ticket—so to speak.

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