An airline employee stole an empty Alaska Airlines Q400 passenger airplane from Seattle–Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac) late Friday night and has since crashed on Ketron Island in the southern Puget Sound. No passengers are believed to have been on board the plane. According to local media, witnesses reported seeing F-15 fighter jets chasing the plane, followed by smoke and loud boom.
What we know
- Sea-Tac airport confirmed on Twitter at 12:31 am EDT that “An airline employee conducted an unauthorized takeoff without passengers at Sea-Tac; aircraft has crashed in south Puget Sound.”
An airline employee conducted an unauthorized takeoff without passengers at Sea-Tac; aircraft has crashed in south Puget Sound. Normal operations at Sea-Tac Airport have resumed.— Sea-Tac Airport (@SeaTacAirport) August 11, 2018
- The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department told NBC News that the airline employee who stole the plane was “a single suicide male,” that there were no passengers on the plane, and that “this is not a terrorist incident.” Video showed the aircraft doing loops and other maneuvers.
- The employee was identified as 29-year-old Richard Russell. A former coworker told the Seattle Times Russell was a “quiet guy” who seemed “well liked by the other workers.”
- Partial recordings of the man’s conversations with air traffic controllers were briefly published online. In them, he said he was sorry to disappoint his loved ones and said he was a “broken guy” who “got a few screws loose, I guess.”
- The Sheriff’s Department also tweeted: “Preliminary info is that a mechanic from unknown airlines stole plane. Was doing stunts in air or lack of flying skills caused crash into Island.”
- A spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) first confirmed to NBC News that a “security issue” involving SeaTac airport in the Seattle area was being investigated Friday night around 9 pm EDT. Several hours later at 12:16 am EDT, Alaska Airlines tweeted: “We are aware of an incident involving an unauthorized take-off of a Horizon Air Q400. We believe there are no passengers on board. More information as we learn more.”
- Aviation journalist Jon Ostrower was able to capture audio of the final radio call between the pilot, who called himself “Rich,” and air traffic controllers on the ground. Another aviation journalist, Jimmy Thompson, reviewed more of those conversations. In them, “Rich” alternates between saying he wants to do a “barrel roll” and expressing remorse.
- Alaska said the individual wouldn’t be positively identified until the “remains are examined.” Alaska Air Group CEO Brad Tilden in a statement said the company is still “gathering the facts” and expressed sympathy for the family and friends of the person involved.
- White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement on Saturday morning that President Donald Trump has been briefed on the incident and is monitoring the situation. “Federal authorities are assisting with the ongoing investigation which is being led by local authorities. We commend the interagency response effort for their swift action and protection of public safety,” she said.
What we don’t know
- Whether the plane crashed on its own or was shot down, though Alaska said the military jets did not appear to be involved.
- Russell’s motivations.