Investigators are trying to piece together how a “suicidal” ground worker at Seattle‘s main airport managed to steal an empty turboprop passenger plane, conduct a series of loops while chased by US Air Force F-15s before crashing it into a small island in the Puget Sound.
Authorities have refused to name the 29-year-old suspect pilot, referred to as “Rich” and “Richard” by air traffic controllers as they tried to coax him towards the ground during the hour-long incident.
However US media have named him as Richard Russell, who is presumed to have died in the crash.
He had clearance to be around aircraft, with ground crew guiding planes, handling bags and de-ice aircraft, but no pilot’s licence.
The aircraft taken, a Bombardier Q400 aircraft, usually carries 76 passengers. There was no connection to terrorism of any kind, officials said.
Authorities said the man went through various background checks to get clearance to be in the secured area.
But the incident will revive the debate about background checks for staff, particularly those being given access to such areas.
The US has about 900,000 aviation workers, according to the most recent federal data and the checks required varying dependent on the job.
The man used a machine called a pushback tractor to first manoeuvre the aircraft 180 degrees so he could taxi to the runway and take off during rush-hour at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at about 8pm on Friday local time.
Authorities said it was unclear how he gained the skills to do loops in the aircraft before crashing.
The unauthorised flight – which was captured on video – grounded all planes at the airport for a time.
Ed Troyer, Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesman, described the alleged pilot as a “suicidal” man “doing stunts in the air” before the crash.
The aircraft slammed into Ketron Island about an hour later, authorities said, triggering an intense blaze.
The wooded island, about 25 miles southwest from the airport has a population of about 20 people. There were no reports of injuries on the ground.
The man could be heard on audio recordings telling air traffic controllers that he is “just a broken guy”.
“There is a runway just off to your right side in about a mile,” the controller says, referring to an airfield at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“Oh man. Those guys will rough me up if I try and land there,” the man responded, later adding “This is probably jail time for life, huh?”
Later the man said: “I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this … Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess.”
Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor said the man “did something foolish and may well have paid with his life”.
Debra Eckrote, the Western Pacific regional chief for the National Transportation Safety Board, said: “It is highly fragmented. The wings are off, the fuselage is, I think, kind of positioned upside down.”
Investigators are hopeful they will be able to recover both the cockpit voice recorder and the event data recorder from the plane.
At a news conference in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, officials from Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air said that they are still working closely with authorities as they investigate what happened.
“Safety is our number one goal,” said Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Airlines.
“Last night’s event is going to push us to learn what we can from this tragedy so that we can ensure this does not happen again at Alaska Air Group or at any other airline.”
The FBI is leading the investigation and is looking into the man’s background to try to determine his motive.
Seattle FBI agent in charge Jay Tabb Jr cautioned that the investigation would take a lot of time, and details, including the employee’s name, would not be released officially right away.
Dozens of personnel were out at the crash site, and co-workers and family members were being interviewed, he said.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House Press Secretary, said on Saturday morning that Donald Trump was “monitoring the situation”.
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