By Alex Horton / The Washington Post
A Horizon Air employee described as “suicidal” commandeered an empty turboprop passenger plane at Seattle’s main airport Friday night and roared low over Puget Sound with a pair of Air Force F-15s in pursuit before crashing it into a small island, authorities said.
Pierce County Sheriff Office spokesman Ed Troyer ruled out terrorism, describing the suspect as an unnamed suicidal 29-year old male from the county “doing stunts in the air” before the crash.
The man, referred to as “Rich” and “Richard” by air traffic controllers in tense recordings, said he was “just a broken guy” as authorities tried to divert the 76-seat Bombardier Q400 away from populated areas.
He stole the aircraft at about 8 p.m. from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and was an employee of Horizon Air, the Alaska Air Group said in a statement.
The aircraft slammed into Ketron Island about 90 minutes later, authorities said, triggering an intense blaze. The wooded island, about 25 miles southwest from the airport, has a population of about 20 people, the Seattle Times reported, and is only accessible by ferry.
Videos posted to social media showed the aircraft flying loops as the F-15s flew in pursuit. The aircraft nose-dives toward the water before pulling up, flying low and sending locals into a panic.
Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor called it a “joyride gone terribly wrong.” Pastor said it appears that the man died in the crash, according to the Times.
The two F-15s were scrambled and in the air within minutes of the theft, flying at supersonic speeds from their Portland air base to intercept the aircraft, said the North American Aerospace Defense Command, which oversees airspace protection in North America.
The jets were armed but did not fire on the aircraft, Air Force Capt. Cameron Hillier, a NORAD spokesman, told The Washington Post on Saturday. They attempted to divert the aircraft toward the Pacific Ocean while maintaining radio communication with controllers and Rich. The jets flew close enough to make visual contact, he said.
The incident fell under the ongoing mission of Noble Eagle, the air defense mission launched after the 9/11 attacks, Hillier said. There have been 1,800 intercepts of nonmilitary aircraft since, according to NORAD’s statement.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee thanked the Air National Guard from Washington and Oregon for scrambling the jets, which “were ready to do whatever was needed to protect us,” he said in a statement.
Communication between Rich and air traffic controllers revealed a conversation between authorities and Rich, whose boisterously says he fueled the plane “to go check out the Olympics [mountains] … and uh, yeah.”
Rich detailed his experience flying from video games and asked for the coordinates to the killer whale shepherding her dead calf through Washington coastal waters for nearly three weeks.
“You know, the mama orca with the baby. I want to go see that guy,” Rich explains, according to audio obtained by Canadian journalist Jimmy Thomson.
At one point, an air traffic controller advises he should land at the airfield of the nearby military base, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the Times reported.
“Oh man,” Rich says, “Those guys will rough me up if I try and land there. I think I might mess something up there, too. I wouldn’t want to do that. They probably have antiaircraft.”
The air-traffic control says they don’t have those weapons.
“We’re just trying to find a place for you to land safely,” he says.
Rich replies: “I’m not quite ready to bring it down just yet … But holy smokes, I got to stop looking at the fuel, because it’s going down quick.”
He explains he had not expected to expend fuel so quickly, as he thinks about what comes next. “This is probably jail time for life, huh?” he says. “I would hope it is for a guy like me.”
At one point, Rich appears to believe he will not live through the moment.
“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 apologize to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it until now.”
The last known transmission was from about 8:47 p.m., the Times reported, well before the crash was reported around 9:30 p.m.
“I feel like one of my engines is going out or something,” Rich says, according to audio posted by aviation journalist Jon Ostrower at the Air Current website.
The controller responds: “OK, Rich… . If you could, you just want to keep that plane right over the water. Keep the aircraft nice and low.”
The incident prompted authorities to ground flights at SeaTac. Flights resumed at about the same time the crash occurred, the airport said in a statement.
Royal King, a Seattle-area resident in the area to photograph a wedding, was near the island when the plane cratered into the island, the Times reported.
“It was unfathomable, it was something out of a movie,” he said. “The smoke lingered. You could still hear the F-15s, which were flying low.”