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A Horizon Air employee described as “suicidal” commandeered an empty turboprop passenger plane at Seattle’s main airport Friday night and roared low over Puget Sound — with a pair of Air Force F-15s in pursuit — before crashing it into a small island, authorities said.
The FBI’s Seattle field office on Friday said early signs do not point toward terrorism. Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Ed Troyer described the suspect as an unnamed suicidal 29-year-old man from the county “doing stunts in the air” before the crash.
The man, referred to as “Rich” and “Richard” by air traffic controllers in tense recordings, said he was “just a broken guy” as authorities tried to divert the 76-seat Bombardier Q400 away from populated areas.
He took off with the stolen aircraft at about 8 p.m. Friday from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and was an employee of Horizon Air, the Alaska Air Group said in a statement.
The aircraft slammed into Ketron Island about an hour later, authorities said, triggering an intense blaze. The wooded island, about 25 miles southwest from the airport, has a population of about 20 people, the Seattle Times reported, and is accessible only by ferry.
Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor called it a “joyride gone terribly wrong.” He said it appears that the man died in the crash and that there were no injuries on the ground, according to the Times. The FBI is leading the investigation, authorities said Saturday.
The man was a ground service agent with more than three years of experience. Those agents guide planes, handle bags and de-ice planes, Horizon Air says. Mike Ehl, the director of operations at SeaTac, told reporters Saturday the man used a tractor to spin the plane 180 degrees so he could taxi to the runway.
Investigators have not disclosed how the man was able to steal the plane and take it aloft, but the suicidal state evident in his radio exchanges is likely to revive the debate about background checks for aviation employees with access to secure areas, analysts say.
The United States has about 900,000 aviation workers, according to the most recent federal data, and the screening procedures they are subjected to are “pretty rudimentary,” said Mary Schiavo, the former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
While pilots undergo periodic medical exams, she said, airline mechanics and ground crew members are checked on a much more limited basis that does not include mental health exams.
The incident has also raised questions about the physical security of the planes. Though aircraft mechanics have broad access and routinely taxi planes along the tarmac, crew members are not supposed to be allowed inside the cockpit.
But Schiavo said those security procedures are not always observed, especially for smaller aircraft such as the Q400. “It can be a little more casual and a little loosey-goosey, especially if they are doing overnight maintenance,” said Schiavo, a former pilot and aviation professor.
A video posted to social media shows the aircraft flying loops as the F-15s flew in pursuit. The aircraft nose-dives toward the water before pulling up, flying low and sending locals into a panic.
(The video below has explicit language.)
Two F-15s were scrambled and in the air within minutes of the theft, flying at supersonic speeds from their Portland Air Force base to intercept the aircraft, said the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which oversees airspace protection in North America.
The jets were armed but did not fire on the aircraft, Air Force Capt. Cameron Hillier, a NORAD spokesman, told The Washington Post on Saturday. They attempted to divert the aircraft toward the Pacific Ocean while maintaining radio communication with controllers and Rich. The jets flew close enough to make visual contact, he said.
The incident fell under the ongoing mission of Noble Eagle, the air-defense mission launched after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hillier said. There have been 1,800 intercepts of nonmilitary aircraft since, according to NORAD’s statement.
Communication between Rich and air traffic controllers revealed a conversation between authorities and Rich, who boisterously says he fueled the plane “to go check out the Olympics [mountains].”
Rich detailed his experience flying from video games and asked for the coordinates to the killer whale shepherding her dead calf through Washington coastal waters for nearly three weeks.
“You know, the mama orca with the baby. I want to go see that guy,” Rich explains, according to audio obtained by Canadian journalist Jimmy Thomson.
At one point, an air traffic controller advises he should land at the airfield of the nearby military base, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the Times reported.
“Oh man,” Rich says, “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 antiaircraft.”
The air-traffic control says they don’t have those weapons.
“We’re just trying to find a place for you to land safely,” he says.
Rich replies: “I’m not quite ready to bring it down just yet . . . But holy smokes, I got to stop looking at the fuel, because it’s going down quick.”
He explains he had not expected to expend fuel so quickly, as he thinks about what comes next. “This is probably jail time for life, huh?” he says. “I would hope it is for a guy like me.”
At one point, Rich appears to believe he will not live through the moment.
“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.”
The last known transmission was from about 8:47 p.m., the Times reported.
“I feel like one of my engines is going out or something,” Rich says, according to audio posted by aviation journalist Jon Ostrower at the Air Current website.
The controller responds: “Okay, Rich . . . “If you could, you just want to keep that plane right over the water. Keep the aircraft nice and low.”
The incident prompted authorities to temporarily ground flights at SeaTac. Flights resumed by about 9:3o p.m., the airport said in a statement.
Royal King, a Seattle-area resident in the area to photograph a wedding, was near the island when the plane cratered into the island, the Times reported.
“It was unfathomable; it was something out of a movie,” he said. “The smoke lingered. You could still hear the F-15s, which were flying low.”
Richard Bloom, an aviation security expert at Arizona’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University at Prescott, said he wasn’t aware of another incident in which a ground crew member managed to heist an airplane. Incidents of aviation workers attempting “inside jobs” that benefit extremists or drug traffickers are far more common.
The scene as an airline employee steals empty plane at Seattle airport then crashes it on a Puget Sound island
A screening system to evaluate the mental health of aviation workers would be difficult, Bloom cautioned. “There are such significant challenges to preventing inappropriate security behavior,” he said. “It’s kind of surprising that these types of things don’t happen more often.”
A bipartisan House bill approved last year, 409 to 0, would tighten employee background checks and increase surveillance of secure areas at airports. But a Senate version of the bill has not advanced to a vote.
The House bill followed a February 2017 House Homeland Security Committee report warning of vulnerabilities to terrorists and criminals seeking to land jobs as aviation workers. Concerns over mental health were not a major focus of the inquiry.
But concern about the mental state of aviation workers has grown in recent years, analyst say, particularly after the 2015 crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in France, when a co-pilot deliberately steered his plane into a mountainside, killing 144 passengers and five crew members.
The co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, had been treated for depression and psychiatric problems, but he had concealed the information from his employer. Once the flight was airborne, Lubitz locked his more senior pilot out of the cockpit and set the plane on its fatal course.
Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.
Resources: If you think a loved one might be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for 24-hour confidential assistance: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). suicidepreventionlifeline.org. You can also call or text the Samaritans at 877-870-HOPE (4673); in addition to prevention, the group’s volunteers offer counseling to those who have lost a loved one to suicide.