Airline employee steals plane from SeaTac, does aerial tricks with F-15s in pursuit before crashing on island south of Seattle


SeaTac Airport. (Wikimedia Commons / Joe Mabel)

A distressed Horizon Air employee stole one of the airline’s planes from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Friday night and roamed through the air with F-15 fighter jets in pursuit until the plane crashed on Ketron Island, southwest of Seattle, authorities said.

No passengers were aboard the Bombardier Q400 turboprop plane, and authorities did not immediately release information about the fate of the employee — but video from the scene showed burning debris strewn across the island.

Air traffic at SeaTac Airport was temporarily grounded due to the security threat, according to reports from Horizon Air’s parent company, Alaska Air.

In audio recordings from the air traffic control system, the man flying the plane said that he was “just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it, until now.”

In another audio clip, the air traffic controller tried to give the man, referred to as “Rich,” options for landing. “This is probably jail time for life, huh?” the man replied:

Horizon Air’s chief operating officer, Constance von Muehlen, said in a video statement that the theft occurred at about 8 p.m. PT. “Our hearts are with the family of the individual aboard, as well as all our Alaska Air and Horizon Air employees,” she said.

Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, said via Twitter that the theft of the plane was “not a terrorist incident,” but involved a “single suicide male” who was a 29-year-old Pierce County resident.

“We know who he is,” Troyer tweeted. “No others involved.”

Troyer did not identify the rogue pilot by name.

In follow-up tweets, Troyer said he was told that F-15 fighter jets were scrambled out of Portland, Ore., and arrived in the area “within a few minutes of the theft.”

“Pilots kept plane out of harm’s way and people on [the] ground safe. .. They may not admit for a few days. But is true,” he wrote.

Air traffic controllers kept up a conversation with the rogue flier, who casually discussed what he was seeing from the cockpit. “Man, have you been to the Olympics? These guys are gorgeous … holy smokes,” he could be heard saying.

At other times, the flier hinted at the reasons for his distress. “Ah, minimum wage,” he said. “We’ll chalk it up to that. Maybe that will grease the gears a little bit with the higher-ups.”

He wondered out loud about what would happen after the flight. “Hey, do you think if I land this successfully, Alaska will give me a job as a pilot?” he asked a controller.

“You know, I think they would give you a job doing anything if you could pull this off,” the controller replied.

“Yeah, right. … Nah, I’m a white guy,” the flier said.

One astonished family posted a video of the plane flying low through the neighborhood (with salty commentary):

This video showed the plane doing what a bystander described as a loop-the-loop, with fighter jets in pursuit.

Other tweets described the crash:

SeaTac Airport reported that normal operations resumed as of 9:30 p.m. PT. Airline passengers complained about the delays caused by the incident. “I’ve been waiting at SeaTac for two hours,” one wrote on Twitter.

Many noted that information about the incident came much more quickly via Twitter than via traditional media outlets.

Late Friday, the FBI’s Seattle office took charge of the investigation in cooperation with local, state and federal partners. “Information gathered thus far does NOT suggest a terrorist threat or additional, pending criminal activity,” the FBI tweeted.

Ketron Island is situated in south Puget Sound, not far from Steilacoom and Chambers Bay Golf Course, which was the venue for the U.S. Open Championship in 2015. Census records show the island with a population of 17 residents in 2010. Here’s the location of the crash:

The aircraft reportedly crashed near Ketron Island, near the Chambers Bay Golf Course.

Here’s what the Horizon Air Bombardier Q400 looks like. The plane normally carries about 80 passengers and crew. It’s commonly flown on regional routes heading from Seattle to destinations in Washington state, Oregon and British Columbia.

Wikimedia Commons

Post updated to correct airport photo and details about how the plane crashed. Frank Catalano contributed to this report.

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