An airline employee stole a plane from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Friday night, flying it for about an hour over the Puget Sound area before crashing it on an island. Two F-15 Eagles were scrambled in response and a ground stop was issued at the airport.
Sheriff Paul Pastor called the flight a “joyride gone terribly wrong” in a news conference Friday, adding that “most terrorists don’t do loops over the water.”
Alaska Airlines later identified the employee as a Horizon Air ground service agent who took the plane from “a maintenance position” at the airport. Further information won’t be released until “the remains are examined,” the airline said. The plane, a Bombardier Q400, can carry 76 passengers.
The F-15s were deployed out of Portland, Oregon, but were not involved in the plane’s crash, according to officials. They were credited with keeping the plane from crashing in a densely populated area. Port of Seattle director Mike Ehl said at a Saturday press conference that the incident led to “about 75” delayed flights, nine diverted flights and five canceled flights.
The employee appeared to be in distress as he spoke to air traffic control while flying the stolen plane, according to a tower broadcast of the conversation.
“I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this,” the employee said to controllers.
“I would like to apologize to each and every one of them,” the man added. “Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it until now.”
At one point, the traffic controllers tried to get the employee to land at McChord Field, an Air Force base south of Tacoma, but the employee refused. The man also mentioned that he was comfortable flying the aircraft because he’d “played some video games before.”
“Everything’s peachy keen,” the man said. “Just did a little circle around Rainier; it’s beautiful. I think I’ve got some gas to check out the Olympics,” he added, referring to Washington’s Olympic Mountains.
At times he joked about “wanting to shoot the shit” with the traffic controllers. And he said he was having “a blast” flying the plane.
Throughout the flight, he tried to banter with the controllers, saying he wanted “the coordinates of that orca, you know, the mama orca with that baby. I want to see that guy.”
“I need to be, like, what do you think, 5,000 feet at least to pull this barrel roll off,” he said at one point.
The man also briefly suggested to the traffic controllers that there was an issue with minimum wage, saying, “Minimum wage, we’ll chalk it up to that. Maybe that will grease the gears a bit with the higher-ups.”
Later he asked: “You think if I can land this successful, Alaska will give me a job as a pilot?”
Air traffic responded: “I think they will give you a job doing anything if you pull this off.”
Witnesses said they saw a plane do a “loop-the-loop” as it was being followed by fighter jets near Chambers Bay, near Tacoma. Twitter user @drbmbdgty tweeted the video, adding that the plane “subsequently crashed.”
The Coast Guard sent a vessel to Ketron Island late Friday, southwest of Tacoma, where officials said the plane had crashed.
Videos and photos from KOMO News showed flames on the island.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee released a statement about the incident late Friday.
“There are still a lot of unknowns surrounding tonight’s tragic incident of a stolen Horizon Airline plane from Sea-Tac Airport,” Inslee said. “The responding fighter jets flew alongside the aircraft and were ready to do whatever was needed to protect us, but in the end the man flying the stolen plane crashed on Ketron Island. I want to thank the Air National Guard from Washington and Oregon for scrambling jets to keep Washingtonians safe.”
Around midnight on Friday, the FBI took over the investigation from local authorities.
Horizon Air responded to the incident with a video statement from Chief Operating Officer Constance von Muehlens late Friday.
“We believe it was taken by a single Horizon Air employee and that no other passengers or crew were onboard” von Muehlens said. “Our hearts are with the family of the individual on board along with all of our Alaska Air and Horizon Air employees.”
This story has been updated with more details from Alaska Airlines and additional information about the effects of the incident at the airport and about the air traffic tower conversation with the man who stole the plane.
Mary Papenfuss contributed to this report.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.