A "suicidal" airline mechanic stole an empty Horizon Air turboprop plane, took off from Sea-Tac International Airport and was chased by military jets before crashing into a small island in the Puget Sound on Friday night, officials said.
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
Preliminary information suggests the crash occurred because the 29-year-old mechanic was "doing stunts in air or lack of flying skills," the Pierce County Sheriff's Department said.
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.— Alaska Airlines (@AlaskaAir) August 11, 2018
Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, said on Twitter the man was suicidal and there was no connection to terrorism.
Videos had earlier emerged on social media that showed a plane travelling through the sky over Chambers Bay, followed by what looked like a military jet.
Some dude stole a plane from #Seatac (Allegedly), did a loop-the-loop, ALMOST crashed into #ChambersBay, then crossed in front of our party, chased by fighter jets and subsequently crashed. Weird times. pic.twitter.com/Ra4LcIhwfU— bmbdgty (@drbmbdgty) August 11, 2018
Witnesses reported seeing the plane being chased by military aircraft before it crashed on Ketron Island, southwest of Tacoma, Washington.
Troyer said F-15 aircraft scrambled out of Portland, Oregon, and were in the air "within a few minutes" and the pilots kept "people on the ground safe."
The sheriff's department said they were working to conduct a background investigation on the Pierce County resident, whose name was not immediately released.
Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor said the man "did something foolish and may well have paid with his life." The man's condition after the crash wasn't immediately known.
The man could be heard on audio recordings telling air traffic controllers that he is "just a broken guy." An air traffic controller called the man "Rich," and tried to convince the man 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?"
Later the man said: "I've got a lot of people that care about me. It's going to disappoint them to hear that I did this...Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess."
Flights out of Sea-Tac, the largest commercial airport in the Pacific Northwest, were temporarily grounded during the drama.
The US Coast Guard sent a 45-foot (14-metre) 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.
Royal King told The Seattle Times he was photographing a wedding when he saw the low-flying turboprop being chased by two F-15s. He said he didn't see the crash but saw smoke.
"It was unfathomable, it was something out of a movie," he told the newspaper. "The smoke lingered. You could still hear the F-15s, which were flying low."
Horizon Air is part of Alaska Air Group and flies shorter routes throughout the US West. The Q400 is a turboprop aircraft with 76 seats.
"Our hearts are with the family of the individual aboard, along with all of our Alaska Air and Horizon Air employees," Horizon Air Chief Operating Officer Constance von Muehlen said in a video posted on Twitter.
Spokesmen for the Transportation Security Administration, the US Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Aviation Administration directed inquiries to local authorities.