A 29-year-old suicidal man stole a Horizon Air Q400 plane from Seattle’s international airport for a short, dramatic flight before crashing on a nearby island.
The local Pierce County Sheriff, Paul Pastor, confirmed via Twitter that the man — believed to be an employee of Horizon Airlines — was acting alone when he made the unauthorised flight and was chased by F15 fighter planes. Local officials said the jets “were not involved in the crash”.
Caught on video, the chase ended when the turboprop 76-seater aircraft crashed on Ketron island, around 50km southwest of Seattle.
The stolen aircraft belonged to Alaska Airlines’ sister carrier, Horizon.
Video taken by a bystander showed the passenger airplane making an unlikely upside-down aerial loop, then flying low over Puget Sound before crashing into the sparsely populated Ketron Island in the northwestern US state of Washington.
The crash sparked a fire in the dense forest. Flames lit up the night as they spread from the burning wreckage to nearby trees.
The suspect was identified as a 29-year-old Pierce County resident and the sheriff’s office said he was an employee “doing stunts in 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.”
Alaska Airlines said the suspect was a ground service employee who helps de-ice planes and direct aircraft to gates.
The F-15s had been scrambled from Portland and had “made it within a few minutes of theft of plane”, the sheriff’s office said.
Officers were conducting a background investigation on the man, who they did not identify but who was identified as “Rich” in audio recordings.
They added that the man could be heard on audio recordings telling air traffic controllers that he’s “got a lot of people that care about me” and that he was “just a broken guy”.
The US Coast Guard said it sent a 45ft vessel to the crash scene after reports of a large plume of smoke in the air.
Leah Morse, who watched the plane flying over her house tailed by the jets, said: “I was outside watering and heard the jets, saw the plane coming, and something told me to get my phone and record.
Ms Morse said her mother, who lives near the crash site, had said eight minutes later that her whole house shook.
“We saw the jets circle back after and she texted that there was no plane.”
The F-15s were not involved in the crash, it was reported.
Horizon Air chief operating officer Constance von Muehlen confirmed one of the airline’s employees had made the “unauthorised take-off” at around 8pm local time.
She confirmed no other crew or passengers had been on the 76-seater Q400.
“Our hearts are with the family of the individual aboard as well as all our Alaska Air and Horizon Air employees,” she added.
Horizon Air is part of Alaska Air Group and flies shorter routes throughout the US west.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport officials grounded flights temporarily during the drama but later said normal operations had resumed.