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Aviation

‘Suicidal’ mechanic steals plane from Seattle airport then crashes it into small island

Two jet fighters were scrambled to try to keep the stolen turboprop from harming anyone

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 August, 2018, 2:59pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 August, 2018, 10:30pm

A “suicidal” mechanic stole an empty passenger plane from the Seattle-Tacoma airport late on Friday, took it for a brief flight then crashed it.

Two military F-15s were scrambled to chase the stolen plane, but officials said the jets “were not involved in the crash”.

Video taken by a bystander showed the passenger aeroplane 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. Officials said there were no victims on the ground.

An airline employee “conducted an unauthorised take-off” of an aeroplane carrying no passengers, then “crashed in south Puget Sound”, Sea-Tac Airport officials said on Twitter.

The stolen plane was a twin engine turboprop Q400 aeroplane belonging to its sister carrier Horizon Air, Alaska Airlines said on Twitter. It normally carries 76 passengers.

“This is not a terrorist incident,” Ed Troyer with the Pierce County Sheriff’s office wrote on Twitter.

The plane thief “is confirmed a suicidal male”, Troyer wrote. “We know who he is.”

The suspect was identified as a 29-year-old airline mechanic and Pierce county resident who “acted alone”, Troyer said, confirming that there were “no passengers on the plane” when it crashed.

The sheriff’s office also said the F-15s, which were scrambled out of Portland, in the nearby state of Oregon, arrived minutes after the plane was stolen and kept the aircraft “out of harms way and people on ground safe”.

Horizon Air chief operating officer Constance von Muehlen issued a statement describing the incident.

“Our hearts are with the family of the individual aboard as well as all of our Alaska Air and Horizon Air employees,” she said.

John Waldron, who took dramatic video of the stolen plane flying in a loop, told CNN that he was out for an evening stroll when he saw the two jet fighters following the turboprop aeroplane.

His first thought was that they were practising for an air show.

“So, I started to capture video, just because I thought it was, kind of bizarre,” he said. “I thought this is really odd. Kept the video rolling.”

Then the passenger plane pilot “did a complete loop … I couldn’t believe he recovered.”

He estimated that the plane at its lowest point was no more “than 100 feet (30.5 metres) above the water”.

Then the pilot “pulled – pretty much straight up and kind of at an angle and almost stalled the aircraft. Somehow he got it levelled back off and then made his way down toward the island.”

Waldron said he was prepared to “run and take cover.” He briefly turned away, then turned back and saw the explosion as the plane crashed.

“Saw a bright, pinpoint area of flame and the smoke. I thought, oh, my god. I think he just crashed.”

The pilot, identified only as “Rich”, comes across as excitable, confused, and even apologetic in a conversation with the control tower.

“Congratulations, you did it,” the control tower tells Rich, according to audio that aired on CNN. “Let’s turn around the air and land it and not hurt anybody on the ground.”

“I don’t know, man,” the pilot answers. “I don’t want to. I was kind of hoping that was going to be it, you know.”

Rich explains that he had put some fuel in the plane “to go check out the Olympics”, but then worried that he was running low.

“I’m down to 2,100 [pounds] (952kg),” he says, “I don’t know what the burnage is like on take-off, but it burned quite a bit faster than I expected.”

The control tower gently urges him to land at a nearby military base. “I wouldn’t want to do that. They probably have anti-aircraft [guns],” he responds.

“This is probably jail time for life, huh?” he later asks, according to a recording provided by The Seattle Times.

Rich said: “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 apologise to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it, until now.”

Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor described the incident at a press conference as a “joyride gone terribly wrong”.