Late yesterday’s full stop at Seattle’s Sea-Tac airport turned out to have a bizarre and ultimately tragic reason. An airline employee had stolen a 78-seat turboprop airliner and conducted a dangerous joyride, complete with loops and other stunts. As air traffic controllers and pilots tried talking the 29-year-old into landing the plane, he began to realize that he might end up in “jail for life,” and apparently decided to end it all:
A 29-year-old man stole a Horizon Air passenger plane from Sea-Tac International Airport and took off on Friday night, circling the area for a short time and performing stunts while being chased by military jets before crashing near Tacoma.
The unnamed man flying the twin-engine turboprop engaged in an hour-long back and forth negotiation with air traffic control where he mentioned not intending to land the aircraft, before the fiery crash on Ketron Island in North Pierce County, just south of Tacoma.
Fortunately, the only death in the crash was the unnamed joyrider, who still has not yet been named, although air-traffic controllers call him “Rich” during their exchanges. Police are treating it as a case of suicide, although he chose perhaps the most unique and uniquely dangerous method.
Ed Troyer, Public Information Officer for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department confirmed on Twitter that the pilot of the plane was a “suicidal male. Acting alone.” He had been identified by authorities as a resident of Pierce County, though his name has not been released Friday. Troyer said they are “working background on him now.” Troyer added they do not believe this to be “a terrorist incident.”
“I’ve got a lot of people that care about me,” the man said in audio obtained from Air Traffic Control radio communications. “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 knew it, until now.”
It appears to have ended in a suicide, but it’s not clear that was the intent at first. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has the audio between “Rich” and the tower in condensed form (which is not embeddable here), and the impression in the first part of the recording is of someone who’s enjoying himself — even as he’s putting lots of other people at risk. At one point, when ATC tries talking him into landing, “Rich” asks then for the coordinates where a mother orca has been carrying her dead calf for the last two weeks:
Air Traffic Control audio from the stolen Q400 flight: “I don’t think I would be happy with you telling me I could land like that." Proceeds to talk about Ocras in Puget Sound. pic.twitter.com/Y9SUpm1hP1
— Benjamin Bearup (@TheAviationBeat) August 11, 2018
At another point, the joyriding pilot tells the tower that he’s played lots of video games and can handle the plane well. However, “Rich” also later tells them that he can’t figure out how to pressurize the plane and that he’s getting “lightheaded” after having vomited at least once. Toward the end, “Rich” tells ATC that he fears “jail time for life” for his stunt and that he’s worried about anti-aircraft guns taking him down. Whether or not “Rich”realized it, the national guard had scrambled a pair of F-15 fighters to protect the airports in case he made any threatening moves toward one of them. Rather than deal with the consequences, it appears that the young man decided to crash in an uninhabited area, taking his life.
This incident raises all sorts of questions about airport security. How does an unauthorized person steal a 78-seat airliner for a joyride? This didn’t turn out to be a terrorist incident, but we know that terrorists have had a very large interest in using airliners as guided missiles. That’s why the F-15s got scrambled to deal with this issue, and it seems highly likely that they would have fired on the plane if it made any aggressive moves towards airports or cities. However, the better method of preventing this kind of scenario is to make sure joyriders or terrorists can’t simply swipe the plane at whim.
It will take a few days to see some questions answered about why “Rich” plowed himself into the ground. It will almost certainly take longer to get questions answered about how “Rich” got up in the air in the first place.