An airline employee took off in a stolen plane at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Friday night in an episode that frustrated stranded travelers, riveted witnesses and ended with the plane crashing about 30 miles from the airport, the authorities said.
The man, a 29-year-old who acted alone, was thought to be suicidal, said officials in Pierce County, where the plane crashed. No one else was believed to be on the 76-seat plane or injured on the ground.
“An airline employee conducted an unauthorized takeoff without passengers at Sea-Tac,” the airport said in a tweet. “Aircraft has crashed in south Puget Sound. Normal operations at Sea-Tac Airport have resumed.”
Alaska Airlines said in a statement that it believed that the person who took the plane was a ground service agent employed by Horizon Air, a subsidiary. The takeoff occurred around 8 p.m. and involved a turboprop, a Q400, flying for Horizon. The flight appeared to last just under an hour.
Ground service agents are responsible for handling baggage and cargo and directing and de-icing planes, according to Horizon’s website.
The employee would have needed the proper clearance from the Transportation Security Administration to gain access to the plane, said Alan J. Stolzer, dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
“There’s not an ignition switch with a key,” he said. “Once someone accesses the airplane and accesses the flight deck, they’re going to be able to operate the airplane. It won’t be the case all the time that the airplane will be secured because people have to access it in order to maintain it.”
In general, airport security is tightly controlled, and this episode will probably prompt additional measures, he added.
“It obviously happens very, very rarely,” he said. “It’s a rogue employee. I think passengers should feel safe.”
Early Saturday morning, Horizon’s chief operating officer, Constance von Muehlen, said in a video statement that “our hearts are with the family of the individual aboard as well as all our Alaska Air and Horizon Air employees.”
The stolen plane crashed on Ketron Island, southwest of the airport, and a local television station showed a wooded area in flames that it called a debris field.
Sheriff Paul Pastor of Pierce County told The Associated Press that the man flying the plane “did something foolish and may well have paid with his life.”
The county sheriff’s office said in a tweet: “We know who he is. No others involved.” It added that it was not a terrorist episode, and that two F-15 fighter jets had responded within minutes of the theft.
Sheriff Pastor told The Seattle Times that the flight was “a joy ride gone terribly wrong,” and videos recorded by onlookers on the ground show the plane diving, looping and rolling over Puget Sound at sunset.
On Saturday morning, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said in a statement that President Trump was monitoring the situation. “Federal authorities are assisting with the ongoing investigation, which is being led by local authorities,” the statement said. “We commend the interagency response effort for their swift action and protection of public safety.”
Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington State tweeted late Friday that there were still “a lot of unknowns” about the tragedy. But he thanked the Air National Guard from Washington and Oregon for quickly sending the jets.
“The responding fighter pilots flew alongside the aircraft and were ready to do whatever was needed to protect us, but in the end the man flying the stolen plane crashed,” Mr. Inslee said.
Air traffic controllers communicated with the pilot to try to help him land safely, the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement.
The Seattle airport was brought to a standstill for part of Friday evening. On one Alaska Airlines flight from Portland, Ore., passengers were stuck on the tarmac after landing and informed by the pilot that there had been an issue with another plane at the airport, and that gates were backed up with 40 planes waiting.
According to the Port of Seattle, which operates the airport, Sea-Tac hosts more than 30 airlines with nonstop service to more than 90 domestic destinations, and almost 30 cities abroad. The F.A.A. ranked it the ninth-busiest airport in the United States for passenger traffic in 2017.
Observers chronicled the plane’s course on social media and listened in to radio traffic in real time. While the plane was still aloft, the man flying it chatted with officials in a frenzied stream of consciousness, commenting on the beauty of the Olympic Mountains, the prospect of jail time and shock at his rapidly fading gas tank.
He said he hoped to have a “moment of serenity” in the air but lamented that the sights “went by so fast.” He also talked about doing a barrel roll in the air and wondered aloud about whether the plane could do a back flip.
“I got a lot of people that care about me and it’s gonna disappoint them to hear that I did this,” the man could be heard saying. “I would like to apologize to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose I guess. Never really knew it until now.”
At one point, an official urged him to land the plane.
The man sputtered.
“I don’t know man,” he said. “I don’t know. I don’t want to. I was kind of hoping that was gonna be it.”
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