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Plane Crashes After 'Unauthorized Takeoff' From Seattle Airport

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
Traffic arrives at Sea-Tac International Airport terminal Friday evening, Aug. 10, 2018, in SeaTac, Wash.

This story was updated at 1:40 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 11.

A "suicidal" airline mechanic stole an empty Alaska Airlines plane and took off from Sea-Tac International Airport before crashing near a small island Friday night, officials said.

Preliminary information suggests the 29-year-old mechanic stole the Horizon Air Q400, and the crash occurred because the person was "doing stunts in air or lack of flying skills," the Pierce County Sheriff's Department said.

The FBI has taken over the investigation. In a statement Friday, officials said: "Although response efforts to tonight's aircraft incident and the investigation are still ongoing, information gathered thus far does NOT suggest a terrorist threat or additional, pending criminal activity."


Authorities say the man who stole the plane was a 3-and-a-half year Horizon employee and, had been through various background checks, and had clearance to be among aircraft. They also say he used a machine called a pushback tractor to first maneuver the aircraft so he could board and then take off Friday evening.

The man didn't have a pilot's license, and authorities say it's unclear how he attained the skills to do loops in the aircraft before crashing about an hour after taking off into a Ketron Island in South Puget Sound.

The National Transportation Safety Board will have a team on the Ketron Island Saturday to retrieve the aircraft's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder.

Debra Eckrote, a regional chief with the National Transportation Safety Board, says the wings are off the plane and the fuselage is upside down.

The plane was empty, and Eckrote said it was very fortunate that the plane crashed in a relatively unpopulated island.

Witnesses reported seeing the plane being chased by military aircraft before it crashed on the island, near Steilacoom. There were no passengers aboard.

The Pierce County Sheriff's Department, said on Twitter Friday night that the man was suicidal and officials are working to conduct a background investigation on the man, whose name was not immediately released.

Airline officials still did not confirm the name of the 29-year-old Saturday morning. They also say it’s still too early to talk about changes to security procedures currently in place, noting mental health services are available to employees.

Airline officials explained that the man needed to hit a series of switches to start the plane. They do not know how he learned to do that.

"There’s no way to lock the passenger doors. The handle stows into the door, but there’s no keys like there are for your car or your home," Horizon Air CEO Gary Beck said.

The man could be heard on audio recordings telling air traffic controllers that he is "just a broken guy."

The Q-400 crashed on the south end of Ketron Island, away from homes. It did spark a small fire, which did not spread.

Police boats patrolled the perimeter late Friday, with helicopters overhead. The man was also chased by military jets dispatched from Portland.

Scott Adams, a battalion chief with West Pierce Fire, told KNKX the location of the crash made for a challenging response.

"Access over there is very poor. There are very few residents. There are no real utilities, per se. Trying to access the plan, the fire, and getting around on the island is very difficult," he said.

As first responders made their way to the scene, neighbors came out to see what was going on at the Steilacoom Ferry dock. Artesia Novelo was at her son's football practice when they saw the plane fly overhead, followed by two fighter jets. Then they heard a boom.

Novelo notes that they live near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, so it's common for them to hear noises associated with cannons and guns.

"We see the helicopters, the fighter jets, the C-17s, it's all really normal to see things like that. It didn't necessarily click that there's something wrong, up until you start hearing all the sirens," she said.

Horizon Air is part of Alaska Air Group and flies shorter routes throughout the U.S. West. The Q400 ix a turboprop aircraft with 76 seats.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.
Ariel first entered a public radio newsroom in 2004 while in school at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. It was love at first sight. After graduating from Bradley, she went on to earn a Master's degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield. Ariel has lived in Indiana, Ohio and Alaska reporting on everything from salmon spawning to policy issues concerning education. She's been a host, a manager and now rides shotgun with Kirsten Kendrick as the Morning Edition producer at KNKX.