Investigation Underway After Seattle Airline Employee Steals Plane, Kills Himself in Crash

A two-acre fire burns early Saturday on the Puget Sound island where the plane crashed. Fire trucks had to travel to the island by ferry to extinguish the blaze.
Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP

An ground service agent at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is dead after stealing and crashing a commercial airliner on Friday. The 29-year-old man took off in a stolen 76-seat Horizon Air Q-400 turboprop, then flew the plane for about an hour — during which he performed aerobatic stunts and was chased by two U.S. F-15 fighter jets — before crashing on Ketron Island in south Puget Sound some 25 miles from the airport. The still unidentified man, who was a Horizon Air employee, is believed to have been the only person aboard the plane when it crashed.

The unlicensed pilot seemed scattered in a 25 minute recording of his conversation with an air traffic controller. He expressed both remorse for what he was doing and enthusiasm for attempting aerobatics, and at times seemed to imply that he intended to end his own life. At one point he said that he had hoped he could have a “moment of serenity” in the air but that everything moved by too fast. At another point he apologized to everyone who cared about him and described himself as, “just a broken guy, got a few screws loose I guess — never really knew it until now.”

The air traffic controller and a pilot tried to convince the man to attempt to land the plane — and to not attempt the aerobatic maneuvers — but were not successful.

Stunned onlookers shot cell phone video of the turboprop flying low to the ground, then again as it was escorted by the fighter planes, which tried to move the plane away from populated areas out over the sea, but did not fire on the airliner. “The responding fighter pilots flew alongside the aircraft and were ready to do whatever was needed to protect us,” Washington State governor Jay Inslee tweeted on Friday, “but in the end the man flying the stolen plane crashed.”

“The person who stole it was either doing it on a lark, or was suicidal,” Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor said on Friday. Terrorism was quickly ruled out as a motive, but the incident still led to a complete shutdown of air traffic in and out of Sea-Tac airport.

On Saturday, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, FBI, and Alaska Airlines — which operates Horizon Air — travelled to the crash site, which is on a sparsely populated wooded island that is only accessible by ferry. An investigation will also seek to determine how a ground service worker was able to access the plane’s cockpit and steal it in the first place.