Seattle plane crash: Airline employee steals aircraft and takes it on 'erratic' flight pursued by F-15s before crashing

A 29-year-old engineer took the Horizon Air aircraft at the height of the Friday night rush hour

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Saturday 11 August 2018 15:39
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Air Traffic Control audio reveals conversation with man who stole Alaska Airlines plane

All flights to and from Seattle airport were halted when an airline employee stole a passenger plane. The aircraft later crashed on a nearby island.

A 29-year-old aircraft engineer working for Horizon Air took an empty Bombardier Q400 aircraft, which carries 76 passengers, shortly before 8pm local time – the height of the Friday night rush hour.

The condition of the man is unclear. But Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor said the man “did something foolish and may well have paid with his life”.

Video showed the Horizon Air Q400 doing large loops and other dangerous manoeuvres as the sun set.

Pierce County Sheriff’s Department said on Twitter that the unnamed pilot was suicidal and appeared to have acted alone. “Was doing stunts in air or lack of flying skills caused crash into Island”, the sheriff’s office said on Twitter.

F15 fighter jets were scrambled from a nearby US Air Force base and followed the aircraft’s erratic flight.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Saturday morning that President Donald Trump is “monitoring the situation”. He’s currently at his New Jersey golf club.

Horizon Air Q400 aircraft of the type stolen at Seattle Airport

The man could be heard on audio recordings telling air traffic controllers that he is “just a broken guy”.

An air traffic controller called the man “Rich”, and tried to convince him to land the airplane.

“There is a runway just off to your right side in about a mile,” the controller says, referring to an airfield at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

“Oh man. Those guys will rough me up if I try and land there,” the man responded, later adding “This is probably jail time for life, huh?”

Later the man said: “I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this ... Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess.”

While the drama unfolded, a full “ground stop” was issued, with departures halted and inbound aircraft diverted – many to Portland in Oregon.

Ben Schaechter, a passenger on a scheduled Alaska Airlines service, tweeted: “Halfway down the runway on Alaska airlines out of Seattle and the pilot slams on the brakes and shares we must go back to the gate

“Quite a scary experience. Not entirely sure what’s happening. Someone sneak on board?

“Okay this insane. A pilot on the plane in front of us just went rogue and took off on an empty plane bypassing orders from the tower. The tower ordered a full stop and they’re trying to communicate with that pilot. Whaaaaaat!”

Horizon Air is the regional subsidiary of Alaska Airlines. In a video message, the carrier’s chief operating officer, Constance von Muehlen, said: “I’m sorry to share with you this evening that at approximately 8pm one of our Q400 aircraft made an unauthorised take-off from Sea-Tac airport.

“We believe it was taken by a single Horizon Air employee and that no other passengers or crew were on board.

“Shortly thereafter, it crashed near Ketron Island by South Tacoma.

“Our hearts are with the family of the individual aboard, as well as all our Horizon Air and Alaska Air employees.”

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, known as Sea-Tac, is one of the 10 busiest in the US.

The airport later announced: “An airline employee conducted an unauthorised takeoff without passengers at Sea-Tac; aircraft has crashed in south Puget Sound. Normal operations at Sea-Tac Airport have resumed.”

Governor Jay Inslee thanked the Air National Guard from Washington and Oregon for scrambling jets and said in a statement that “there are still a lot of unknowns surrounding [this] tragic incident”.

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