Theft and crash of Seattle airplane prompts FBI investigation
US authorities are investigating how a “suicidal” airline employee was able to steal a plane from Seattle-Tacoma international airport and fly for around an hour before crashing the aircraft, in a major security breach.
F-15 fighter jets were scrambled to pursue the rogue aircraft after it took off at around 8pm on Friday evening and circled south of Seattle for about an hour. The plane crashed on Ketron Island in the Puget Sound waterway about 25 miles south-west of the airport, with video footage showing smoke rising from the crash site.
FBI agents leading the criminal investigation into the crash have turned their attention to the pilot, a Seattle-area resident who had been working as a ground services employee with Horizon Air, a subsidiary of Alaska Airlines.
Investigators believe the 29-year-old airline employee used his security clearance to steal the Horizon Air Q400 turboprop plane from a maintenance area.
Video showed the plane doing large loops and other dangerous manoeuvres. In recorded comments to air traffic controllers, the man had indicated he intended to crash the plane.
The man had crashed by “doing stunts in air or lack of flying skills”, the Pierce County sheriff’s department said on Twitter.
Shortly after the crash, local police officials described the crash as a suicide unrelated to terrorism. Paul Pastor, the county sheriff, said there was no indication the person flying the plane had intended any harm to others. Pastor said the man “did something foolish and may well have paid with his life”.
On Saturday morning, the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, said in a statement that Donald Trump was monitoring the situation.
The man can be heard on audio recordings telling air traffic controllers that he is “just a broken guy”.
Debra Eckrote, a regional chief with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), described the wreckage of the aircraft as “highly fragmented”.
“The wings are off. The fuselage is kinda positioned upside down,” Eckrote said Saturday morning during a press briefing.
“With the daylight, the fire’s out, we’ll be able to identify the parts and pieces of the wreckage and focus on the areas that we’re looking for,” she continued.
The plane had been positioned in a maintenance area of the airport when it was taken, an Alaska Airlines spokesperson said Friday night. It had not been scheduled for passenger flight and was empty except for the pilot.
The emergency shut down the airport, known as Sea-Tac, and the surrounding skies. Flights were grounded with some passengers tweeting that their plane stopped abruptly on the runway.
Air national guard fighter jets based in Portland, Oregon, rushed to the area within minutes of the unauthorized takeoff. Arriving ahead of sonic booms, they tailed the airliner over the Chambers Bay golf course, which hosted the US Open in 2015, before the pilot began turning barrel rolls over the Puget Sound.
“It was unfathomable, it was something out of a movie,” witness Royal King told The Seattle Times. “The smoke lingered. You could still hear the F-15s, which were flying low.”
Speaking on Saturday, Eckrote said fighter pilots and the air traffic controllers worked to bring the plane down without loss of life. The Washington state governor, Jay Inslee, praised the fighter pilots: “Those pilots are trained for moments like tonight and showed they are ready and capable,” the governor said on Twitter.
The plane crashed in a wooded area of Ketron Island, a speck in Puget Sound believed to be home to 12 people. Firefighters and police boarded a ferry to extinguish the resulting blaze, which burned into the night.
The Horizon Air chief operating officer, Constance von Muehlen, confirmed the plane was taken by a Horizon Air employee. “Our hearts are with the family of the individual aboard, as well as all our Alaska Air and Horizon Air employees,” von Muehlen said by video.
Horizon Air is a division of Alaskan that flies short routes in the western US.
The NTSB are expected to conduct a detailed review of the crash, including a technical examination of the wreckage and an inquiry into human factors that contributed to the crash.
Security concerns raised by the crash would likely be part of that months-long investigation. That investigation will occur in parallel with the FBI-led criminal inquiry, which is ongoing.
“The greatest threat we have to aviation is the insider threat,” Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent and transportation security expert, told the Associated Press.
“Here we have an employee who was vetted to the level to have access to the aircraft and had a skill set proficient enough to take off with that plane.”
- In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 and the domestic violence helpline is 0808 2000 247. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14 and the national family violence counselling service is 1800 737 732. In the US, the suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org
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