Plane wreckage from the stolen Q400 burns on Ketron Island, Washington.
Photo: Ted S. Warren (AP)

A 29-year-old airline employee “thought to be suicidal” stole a 76-seat Q400 turboprop plane from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac) on Friday night, eventually crashing some 30 miles away with fighter jets on his tail, the New York Times reported. Local authorities confirmed he is dead.

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Per local station KOMO News, the man flew “erratically” once in the air, at one point managing to flip the aircraft upside down and nose-dive towards Puget Sound before turning upwards. Ground controllers tried to get him to turn and land at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a nearby military installation. KOMO News wrote:

Controller: “There is the runway just off to your right side in about a mile. Do you seen that? That’s the McChord field.”

Pilot: “Oh man, those guys will rough me up if I tried landing there. I think I might mess something up there, too. I wouldn’t want to do that. They probably got anti-aircraft!”

Controller: “Nah, they don’t have any of that stuff. We’re just trying to find a place for you to land safely.”

Pilot: “Yeah, I’m not quite ready to bring it down just yet. Holy smokes! I gotta quick looking at the fuel ‘cause it’s going down quick.”

Controller: “If you could, could you start a left hand turn? And we’ll take you down to the southeast please.”

Pilot: “This is probably jail time for life, huh? I would hope it is for a guy like me.”

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Per CNN, these additional exchanges occurred:

Later, a controller discusses getting a pilot on the radio to help the man control the aircraft.

“Nah, I mean, I don’t need that much help. I’ve played some video games before,” the man responds.

...“Congratulations,” an air traffic controller says, “you did that, now let’s try to land that airplane safely and not hurt anybody on the ground.”

The man responds: “Awwww-right ... dammit.. I don’t know man! I don’t know! I don’t want to. I was kinda hoping that was gonna be it. Ya know?”

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Eventually the plane crashed on Ketron Island on Puget Sound in Pierce County, setting it ablaze, after two F-15 jets with the Oregon Air National Guard’s 142nd Fighter Wing were scrambled to intercept it. It’s not totally clear whether the pilot was aware of the jets closing in before he crashed, though video posted to Twitter shows them flying close enough to the Q400 that he should have been aware of their presence.

According to CNN, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) said the jets were armed but denied they fired upon the aircraft.

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The rogue employee is believed to be a ground service agent, a role which entails baggage and cargo handling in addition to directing and de-icing aircraft, for Horizon Air, the Times added. The Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s College of Aviation dean Alan J. Stolzer told the paper that while the man would have needed Transportation Security Administration clearance to gain entrance to the aircraft, once inside the flight deck there are typically no security measures such as “an ignition switch with a key” to prevent someone from taking control.

“It obviously happens very, very rarely,” Stolzer told the Times. “It’s a rogue employee. I think passengers should feel safe.”

CNN safety analyst David Soucie said, “There is a protocol to not allow anyone singularly to get onboard an aircraft... Every airport in the country is going to be looking” at whether that needs to be updated.

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Mary Schiavo, an aviation analyst with CNN, added that the pilot seemed to know some basic elements of flying such as firing both engines in tandem and using the yoke and rudders at the same time to coordinate turns. But she said he also apparently lacked basic knowledge of cockpit elements such as how to set a heading manually.

The incident caused hours of delays at Sea-Tac.

“It was unfathomable; it was something out of a movie,” Seattle resident and witness Royal King told the Washington Post. “The smoke lingered. You could still hear the F-15s, which were flying low.”

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If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

[New York Times]