Airline employee steals plane from Washington airport and crashes into island

Witnesses filmed the Horizon Air 76-seater plane performing loops and being pursued by two F-15 military jets near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Washington state before it crashed in dense woodland on Ketron Island.

The suspect was identified as a 29-year-old Pierce County resident and ground service employee who helps direct aircraft to gates.

His condition is not yet known, but police say the “fiery crash” made it likely that he was “probably not [in] a good condition”.

The sheriff’s office said they believed the crash was caused by “doing stunts in [the] air or lack of flying skills”.

It added: “This is not a terrorist incident. Confirmed info… this is a single suicide male. We know who he is. No others involved.”

The F-15 fighter jets were scrambled from Portland and “made it within a few minutes of theft of plane”, according to the sheriff’s office.

The airport worker “had access legitimately” to the plane before taking it on a flight and crashing, according to Mike Ehl, director of aviation operations at the airport.

He added that “no security violations were committed”.

The man used a machine called a pushback tractor to first manoeuvre the aircraft so he could board and then take off, authorities said.

He was a ground service agent for Horizon Air for the last three and a half years, according to Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Airlines.

“Had a background check. He was in uniform, he was on shift yesterday. He’s meant to be on the secure side, that’s part of his job responsibilities.”

One witness filmed the plane doing a large loop-the-loop, which they first thought was part of an air show rehearsal.

John Waldron told CNN: “I started to capture video, just because I thought it was, kind of bizarre… [The plane did] a complete loop… I couldn’t believe he recovered.”

Mr Waldron said the plane at its lowest point was no more than 100ft (30.5m) above the water.

He said the pilot then “pulled pretty much straight up and kind of at an angle”, adding he “somehow he got it levelled back off and then made his way down toward the island”.

As Mr Waldron was preparing to “run and take cover”, he looked back and “saw a bright, pinpoint area of flame”.

Audio exchanges between an air traffic controller and the pilot have been released.

In one, the controller can be heard telling the pilot: “What we don’t want to see is you get hurt or anyone else get hurt, so like I said, if you want to land, that’s probably the best way to go.”

The pilot – who has not yet been formally named but is addressed as “Rich” in the recordings – says he’s “got a lot of people that care about me” and that he was “just a broken guy”.

Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor described the incident as a “joyride gone terribly wrong”, adding that the pilot “did something foolish and may well have paid with his life”.

While firefighters have successfully contained the blaze, their progress has been hindered due to a water shortage on the island.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport officials grounded flights temporarily during the drama but later said normal operations had resumed.

Questions are now being asked as to how the man managed to gain entry to the plane, successfully taxi it down the runway and fly it for around 50 minutes before crashing.

The Seattle FBI are now understood to be on the scene and have taken over the investigation.

Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air officials said they were still working closely with authorities to investigate what happened.

“Safety is our number one goal,” Alaska Airlines CEO Mr Tilden said.

“Last night’s event is going to push us to learn what we can from this tragedy so that we can ensure this does not happen again at Alaska Air Group or at any other airline.”

:: Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org in the UK. In the US, call the Samaritans branch in your area or 1 (800) 273-TALK.

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