A "suicidal" airline employee at Seattle's Sea-Tac International Airport stole an empty plane Friday night for a bizarre joyride, performing dangerous air maneuvers under close pursuit by F-15 fighter jets before crashing into an island.
The 29-year-old amateur pilot was presumed dead after the Bombardier Q400, stolen from Horizon Airlines, slammed into Ketron Island, about 30 miles south of the airport, setting off a large forest fire.
Video showed the 76-seat aircraft doing large loops and other dangerous maneuvers as the sun was setting.
The pilot,whose named was not released, was described by Ed Troyer, public information officer for Pierce County, Washington, as a "suicidal male" and resident of the county, but not a terrorist. Alaska Airlines said he was an employee who helps direct aircraft to gates and de-ice planes.
Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor said the man “did something foolish and may well have paid with his life.”
Only minutes after the plane made its bizarre, unauthorized takeoff around 8 p.m., the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) scrambled two F-15s out of Portland to intercept it. NORAD said the fighters were attempting to direct him out over the Pacific Ocean when it went down but did not fire on the aircraft.
During the ordeal, the self-proclaimed pilot 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.”
The U.S. Coast Guard sent a 45-foot vessel to the crash scene after witnesses reported seeing a large plume of smoke in the air, Petty Officer Ali Flockerzi said. Video showed fiery flames amidst trees on the island, which is sparsely populated and only accessible by ferry.
Alaska Airlines said the plane was in a “maintenance position” when it was stolen and not scheduled for a passenger flight. Horizon Air is part of Alaska Air Group and flies shorter routes throughout the West in the United States. The Q400 is a turboprop aircraft with 76 seats.
The FBI's Seattle office issued a statement early Saturday, saying the investigation is still ongoing and that the information gathered "does not suggest a terrorist threat or additional, pending criminal activity."
"We believe it was taken by a single Horizon Air employee and that no other passengers or crew were onboard," Horizon Air Chief Operating Officer Constance von Muehlen said in a statement. "Our hearts are with the family of the individual aboard as well as all of our Alaska Air and Horizon Air employees."
Royal King told the Seattle Times he was photographing a wedding when he saw a plane and two F-15 fighter jets trailing it. He said he didn’t see the crash but saw smoke.
“It was unfathomable, it was something out of a movie,” King told the Times. "The smoke lingered. You could still hear the F-15s, which were flying low."
In a statement, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee praised the responding fighter pilots that flew alongside the stolen aircraft.
"I want to thank the Air National Guard from Washington and Oregon for scrambling jets to keep Washingtonians safe," Inslee tweeted, adding: "Those pilots are trained for moments like tonight and showed they are ready and capable."
Contributing: Emily Brown, USA TODAY; KING-TV, Seattle; Associated Press