The aircraft was stolen at about 8 p.m. Alaska Airlines said it was in a “maintenance position” and not scheduled for a passenger flight. Horizon Air is part of Alaska Air Group and flies shorter routes throughout the U.S. West.
Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor said the man, whose name was not immediately released, “did something foolish and may well have paid with his life.”
Video showed the Horizon Air Q400 doing large loops and other dangerous maneuvers as the sun set on the Puget Sound. The Q400 is a turboprop aircraft with 76 seats. There were no passengers aboard.
The man could be heard on audio recordings telling air traffic controllers that he is “just a broken guy.” An air traffic controller called him “Rich,” and tried to convince him to land the airplane.
“There is a runway just off to your right side in about a mile,” the controller says, referring to an airfield at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“Oh man. Those guys will rough me up if I try and land there,” the man responded, later adding, “This is probably jail time for life, huh?”
“I’ve got a lot of people that care about me,” the man later said. “It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this…Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess.”
Authorities initially said the man was a mechanic, but Alaska Airlines later said he was believed to be a ground service agent employed by Horizon. Those employees direct aircraft for takeoff and gate approach and de-ice planes.
Witnesses reported seeing the plane being chased by military aircraft before it crashed on Ketron Island, a small island in the Puget Sound that is home to about two dozen residents. Troyer said two F-15 military planes scrambled out of Portland, Oregon, and were in the air “within a few minutes” and the pilots kept “people on the ground safe.” He said the military planes were not involved in the crash.
The U.S. Coast Guard sent a 45-foot vessel to the crash scene after witnesses reported seeing a large plume of smoke in the air, Petty Officer Ali Flockerzi said. Video showed fiery flames amidst trees on the island, which is sparsely populated and only accessible by ferry.
Alaska Airlines said no structures on the ground were damaged.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement early Saturday that President Trump was briefed on the incident and is “monitoring the situation.”