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A Horizon Air plane, commandeered by an airline employee without passengers, was chased by F-15 fighter jets Friday evening before crashing on an island southwest of Seattle. (Images: KING 5 News and Twitter)

A distressed Horizon Air employee stole one of the airline’s planes from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Friday night and roamed through the air with F-15 fighter jets in pursuit until the plane crashed on Ketron Island, southwest of Seattle, authorities said.

FOLLOW-UP: Horizon Air employee’s fatal joyride points to gaps in airport security, and we’re lucky it wasn’t worse

No passengers were aboard the Bombardier Q400 turboprop plane, and authorities did not immediately release information about the fate of the employee — but video from the scene showed burning debris strewn across the island.

Air traffic at Sea-Tac Airport was temporarily grounded due to the security threat, according to reports from Horizon Air’s parent company, Alaska Air.

In audio recordings from the air traffic control system, the man flying the plane said that he was “just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it, until now.”

In another audio clip, the air traffic controller tried to give the man, referred to as “Rich,” options for landing. “This is probably jail time for life, huh?” the man replied:

Horizon Air’s chief operating officer, Constance von Muehlen, said in a video statement that the theft occurred at about 8 p.m. PT. “Our hearts are with the family of the individual aboard, as well as all our Alaska Air and Horizon Air employees,” she said.

Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, said via Twitter that the theft of the plane was “not a terrorist incident,” but involved a “single suicide male” who was a 29-year-old Pierce County resident.

“We know who he is,” Troyer tweeted. “No others involved.”

Troyer did not identify the rogue pilot by name.

In follow-up tweets, Troyer said he was told that F-15 fighter jets were scrambled out of Portland, Ore., and arrived in the area “within a few minutes of the theft.”

“Pilots kept plane out of harm’s way and people on [the] ground safe. .. They may not admit for a few days. But is true,” he wrote.

Air traffic controllers kept up a conversation with the rogue flier, who casually discussed what he was seeing from the cockpit. “Man, have you been to the Olympics? These guys are gorgeous … holy smokes,” he could be heard saying.

At other times, the flier hinted at the reasons for his distress. “Ah, minimum wage,” he said. “We’ll chalk it up to that. Maybe that will grease the gears a little bit with the higher-ups.”

He wondered out loud about what would happen after the flight. “Hey, do you think if I land this successfully, Alaska will give me a job as a pilot?” he asked a controller.

“You know, I think they would give you a job doing anything if you could pull this off,” the controller replied.

“Yeah, right. … Nah, I’m a white guy,” the flier said.

One astonished family posted a video of the plane flying low through the neighborhood (with salty commentary):

This video showed the plane doing what a bystander described as a loop-the-loop, with fighter jets in pursuit.

Other tweets described the crash:

Sea-Tac Airport reported that normal operations resumed as of 9:30 p.m. PT. Airline passengers complained about the delays caused by the incident. “I’ve been waiting at SeaTac for two hours,” one wrote on Twitter.

Many noted that information about the incident came much more quickly via Twitter than via traditional media outlets.

Late Friday, the FBI’s Seattle office took charge of the investigation in cooperation with local, state and federal partners. “Information gathered thus far does NOT suggest a terrorist threat or additional, pending criminal activity,” the FBI tweeted.

Ketron Island is situated in south Puget Sound, not far from Steilacoom and Chambers Bay Golf Course, which was the venue for the U.S. Open Championship in 2015. Census records show the island with a population of 17 residents in 2010. Here’s the location of the crash:

The aircraft reportedly crashed near Ketron Island, near the Chambers Bay Golf Course.

Here’s what the Horizon Air Bombardier Q400 looks like. The plane normally carries about 80 passengers and crew. It’s commonly flown on regional routes heading from Seattle to destinations in Washington state, Oregon and British Columbia.

Wikimedia Commons

This archived video from our news partner KING 5 shows how the events unfolded Friday night.

Update, Saturday morning. Here’s the latest from Alaska Air.


Brad Tilden: “There was an incident late yesterday involving the unauthorized operation of one of our aircraft that took off from Sea-Tac around 8 p.m.

“We are still gathering facts, but at this point we understand there was only one person aboard, an employee of Horizon Air, who was operating the aircraft. I want to share how incredibly sad all of us at Alaska are about this incident. Our heart is heavy for the family and friends of the person involved.

“We’re working to find out everything we possibly can about what happened, working with the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Transportation Safety Board. We are giving those investigators our full support and cooperation.

“With these investigations underway, our focus will remain on supporting the family of the individual involved, the broader Alaska and Horizon family, and our communities and guests.

“We will keep the public updated on our blog, where we’ll post updates as information becomes available.”

Brad Tilden

CEO, Alaska Air Group

Gary Beck: “I want to echo what Brad said about how incredibly sad all of us are about what happened last night.

“Our first priority is always the safety and care of our people and guests. Our hearts are with all of our employees at Horizon Air, and the larger Alaska Airlines community, and the family of the individual involved.

“The Horizon Air Q400, which was taken from Sea-Tac International Airport, was not scheduled to fly at the time of the incident. While we have not yet confirmed the identity of the employee, we have confirmed that all crew and passengers are accounted for. Air Traffic Control was in contact with the individual during the brief flight before it crashed on Ketron Island about an hour after it left Sea-Tac. No ground structures were involved in the crash.

“We are working closely with the authorities and our own safety teams to thoroughly understand this incident.

“I want to thank the employees of Horizon Air and our guests. Our primary objective is to do everything possible to support all of you.”

Gary Beck, President and CEO, Horizon Air

Post updated to correct airport photo and details about how the plane crashed. Frank Catalano contributed to this report.

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