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‘Suicidal’ man who stole, crashed plane was 3 ½-year employee without pilot’s license

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‘Suicidal’ man who stole, crashed plane was 3 ½-year employee without pilot’s license


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An airline employee stole an empty plane that he eventually crashed into an island near Seattle’s Sea-Tac airport. Listen to his final moments as he talks back and forth with air traffic control.
USA TODAY

A “suicidal” man who commandeered an empty commercial aircraft had worked for the airline for 3 ½ years and had full credentials to be near the plane at the time when he stole it, officials said Saturday. 

During an afternoon news conference, airline officials and the FBI gave new insight into how the man was able to operate the plane unnoticed and take a joy ride for about an hour that included dangerous in-air maneuvers. 

Investigators are interviewing friends and co-workers about the man but still have not released his name. Airline officials say they do not believe he has a pilot’s license, which left them puzzled. 

“To be honest with you,” said Gary Beck, Horizon Airlines CEO. “I don’t know how he achieved the experience that he did.” 

The 29-year-old amateur pilot is 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.

During the joyride, the plane was pursued by F-15 military fighter jets. Video showed the empty 76-seat aircraft doing large loops and other dangerous maneuvers as the sun was setting.

The pilot 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.”

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board said Saturday they were working to recover the cockpit recorder, which could have captured the man talking as he commandeered the plane. Debra Eckrote, regional director for the NTSB’s western Pacific region, said the recorder could hold clues for a motive. 

She said the event was “very unusual,” adding “it’s not like we get this every day.” 

Eckrote said the plane crashed in a heavily treed area. Both wings were ripped from it and the rest of the aircraft was left in pieces, she said. 

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.



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After an “unauthorized takeoff” late Friday night, a 29-year-old man stole an Alaska Airlines plane and crashed it nearby into Ketron Island.
USA TODAY

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.”

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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

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