Audio has emerged of an extraordinary conversation between a “suicidal” airline employee who stole a passenger plane and air traffic controllers trying to guide him back down.
The ground service agent took off from a Seattle airport in a 76-seater plane at the height of rush hour on Friday evening.
The Horizon Air Q400, which did a number of dangerous loops, was chased by military jets before it crashed into a small island in the Puget Sound after 8pm. No one else was on board.
Preliminary information suggests the crash occurred because the 29-year-old man was “doing stunts in air or lack of flying skills”, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department said.
Ed Troyer, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s department, said on Twitter the man was suicidal and there was no connection to terrorism.
In audio obtained by The Seattle Times, the 29-year-old man, who air traffic controllers at Sea-Tac International Airport call “Rich”, can be heard responding to questions about his altitude.
“I have no idea what that all means – I wouldn’t know how to punch it in,” he tells air traffic control. “I’m off autopilot.”
After being reassured he will be kept away from other planes, Rich responds: “Oh OK yeah I don’t wanna screw with that. I’m glad you’re not screwing up everyone else’s day on account of me.”
While fretting about how much fuel he has left, Rich appears to doubt his ability to land the plane.
“Ah man those guys would rough me up if I tried landing that,” he says, possibly in reference to military jets on his tail. “I think I might mess something up there too. I wouldn’t want to do that. They’ve probably got anti-aircraft.”
After being told authorities just want to bring him down safely, Rich responds: “Yeah I’m not quite ready to bring it down just yet, but holy smokes I’ve got to stop looking at the fuel because it’s going down quick.”
As air traffic control attempts to guide him towards a runway, Rich asks if it would be a lifetime prison sentence for what he has done. “I mean I would hope it is for a guy like me,” he adds.
He later asks, jokingly, if authorities would grant him a job as a pilot after successfully landing the plane. After being told he could get a job “doing anything” if “you can pull this off”, he says, “Yeah right! Nah I’m a white guy”, before the audio trails off.
The clip ends after Rich asks for coordinates to locate an orca in the Pacific Ocean. “You know the mama orca with the baby, I wanna go see that guy,” he says, apparently in reference to a grieving killer whale and its dead offspring, whose plight has received a lot of media coverage.
Authorities initially said the man was a mechanic but Alaska Airlines later said he was believed to be a ground service agent employed by Horizon. Ground service agents direct planes for takeoff and gate approach, and de-ice planes.
Witnesses reported seeing the plane being chased by military jets before it crashed on Ketron Island, southwest of Tacoma, Washington, about 90 minutes after it had taken off. Mr Troyer said F-15 aircraft scrambled out of Portland, Oregon, and were in the air “within a few minutes” and the pilots kept “people on the ground safe”.
Pierce County sheriff Paul Pastor said the man “did something foolish and may well have paid with his life.”
Flights out of Sea-Tac, the largest commercial airport in the Pacific Northwest, were temporarily grounded during the drama.
The US Coast Guard sent a 45ft vessel to the crash scene after witnesses reported seeing a large plume of smoke in the air, petty officer Ali Flockerzi said. Video showed flames amid trees on the island, which is sparsely populated and only accessible by ferry.
Alaska Airlines said no structures on the ground were damaged.
Royal King told The Seattle Times he was photographing a wedding when he saw the low-flying turboprop being chased by two F-15s. He said he didn’t see the crash but saw smoke.
“It was unfathomable, it was something out of a movie,” he told the newspaper. “The smoke lingered. You could still hear the F-15s, which were flying low.”
“Our hearts are with the family of the individual aboard, along with all of our Alaska Air and Horizon Air employees,” Horizon Air chief operating officer Constance von Muehlen said.
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