An airline employee stole an empty passenger plane from Seattle’s airport on Friday night, taking off on an apparent suicide mission that led to U.S. military fighter jets being deployed in hot pursuit.
Around 8 p.m., a Horizon Air employee took off in one of the company's Q400 turboprop planes from the maintenance area of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Air traffic controllers, who were in contact with man during the journey, briefly grounded all air travel in the area as they worked to determine what was happening, and if there was a threat to national security.
Eyewitness video captured the plane making barrel rolls and turns over the water. F-15 fighter jets that scrambled out of airbase in Portland were captured on video trailing the plane. NORAD said the jets were trying to direct the plane over the Pacific Ocean. Soon after, the plane took a nose dive, an eyewitness told the Seattle Times.
The plane crashed into a wooded island, killing the pilot and starting a fire, Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor said. No one else was injured.
"This is a single suicide male. We know who he is. No others involved," the sheriff’s office said in a tweet that noted it was "not a terrorist incident."
Officials said the pilot was a 29-year-old man from Sumner, Washington. Alaska Airlines identified the man as a “ground service agent” for its sister company Horizon, a regional airline based in Seattle.
The National Transportation Safety Board said investigators will search the man’s home and speak to his family.
An air-traffic controller referred to the man as Rich as he tried to convince the man to land.
“There is the runway just off to your right side in about a mile,” the controller said, referencing Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a military base.
“Oh man,” Rich immediately responded, “Those guys will rough me up if I try and land there. I think I might mess something up there too. I wouldn’t want to do that. They probably have anti-aircraft.”
At various points in the exchange, the man sounded giddy and joked with air-traffic control—until he said he was running out of fuel.
“This is probably jail time for life, huh?” he said. “I would hope it is for a guy like me.”
The man continued a moment later:
“I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this. I would like to apologize to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it, until now.”
Soon after, the man said he felt one of his engines go out.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office confirmed the plane crashed on Ketron Island.
“We were just cooking dinner and we heard an explosion and saw a bunch of military planes,” a resident of the island, who asked not to be identified, told The Daily Beast. “We thought it was some kind of test exercise and just dismissed it.”
According to The News Tribune, Ketron Island has only “20-some” residents. “It has no gas station, store, mail delivery or refuse pickup,” the paper reported in 2015. “The only public access to the island is via a four-times-daily Pierce County ferry from Steilacoom.”
NTSB investigators said the plane was “highly fragmented” and its wings were torn off. The NTSB said it will seek to recover the aircraft’s flight-data record and cockpit-voice recorder for analysis.
“We’re lucky it went down on a very unpopulated island,” NTSB official Debra Eckrote told reporters Saturday morning.