A turboprop passenger plane stolen from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and trailed by two fighter jets crashed Friday night on Ketron Island, off the shore from Steilacoom, authorities said.
Only the unidentified pilot was on the plane, according to authorities. He was described as being a Horizon Air employee by Constance von Muehlen, the airline’s chief operating officer.
Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said the man who stole the plane is a mechanic at the airport. He described him as a 29-year-old man who might have mental health problems. He is reported to be a Pierce County resident.
“The guy didn’t know how to fly or intentionally did stunts over Anderson Island, and crashed into Ketron Island,” Troyer said.
Sheriff Paul Pastor said during a news conference in Steilacoom that the pilot, a Sumner resident, was “probably deceased.”
“The person who stole it was either doing it on a lark, or was suicidal,” Pastor said, adding there was no indication anyone else was on the plane.
The plane was not shot down, Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement.
“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 on Ketron Island,” Inslee said.
The incident does not appear to be an act of terrorism, said FBI spokeswoman Ayn Dietrich.
Earlier in the evening, the pilot alternately expressed remorse for his actions and a desire to perform aerobatics as flew around Puget Sound, pursued by the two F-15 fighters.
In a recording posted to Broadcastify, the pilot can be heard calmly chatting with Air Traffic Control.
“I got a lot of people that care about me and it’s going to disappoint them to hear about this,” says the pilot, who ground control addresses as Rich.“I would like to apologize to each and everyone of them. Just a broken guy. Got a few screws loose. Never knew it until now.”
The pilot marvels at the beauty of the Olympics. Ground control gently suggest he turns away
“Hey, pilot guy,” Rich asks. “Can this thing do a black flip thing?” .
Later he says he’s going to land it in a “safe manner” but then asks if the plane can do a barrel roll.
“If that goes good, I’m going to go nose down and call it a night,” Rich says.
Ground control advises him to wait.
The pilot’s erratic flying and the two jets tailing it alarmed residents all over the South Sound.
Joseph Durant, 20, of Steilacoom was watching a James Bond movie with his family when they heard the roar of the jets over their home. Moments later they heard an explosion.
Scott Adams, a battalion chief with West Pierce Fire and Rescue, said about 10:30 p.m. the crash had started a grass fire, and that two fire engines, a medic unit and a command unit were at the site, along with firefighting staff from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Video from KIRO 7 showed a fire burning in timber, near the island’s high cliffs.
The wooded area is difficult to access, and because there are no fire engines on the island, everything has to get to there via ferry, Adams said.
They called a second alarm, Adams said, to get more crews out to the island. He expected “a whole slew of engines that will be coming through at the ferry terminal in a few minutes.”
There were no reports of injuries on the ground, he said, except presumably the pilot.
Earlier, Alaska Airlines, the parent company of Horizon Air whose plane was stolen, tweeted a statement.
“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.”
Troyer said dozens of people called 911 to report the crash.
“Witnesses said a ... plane is going down,” Troyer said. “We have police boats, we have everybody responding. We’re trying to contact the military. We are sending resources and people.”
The two F-15 fighters were scrambled from the Portland airport and followed the plane as it flew over the region.
The incident shut down Sea-Tac Airport but flights are returning to normal Friday evening.
The FBI is involved in the investigation, Troyer said.
A witness on the ground, Bryan Sichley, said he was at Chambers Bay in University Place and saw the plane nose dive after being chased by two fighter jets.
Royal King of Mukilteo was photographing a wedding at Lake Steilacoom when he saw the low-flying plane and two fighter jets trailing it. He knew something was off, he said.
He then saw the two jets come back around toward him, but not the Horizon plane. He didn’t hear the crash, but saw smoke.
“It was unfathomable, it was something out of a movie,” he said. “The smoke lingered. You could still hear the F-15s, which were flying low.”
The Seattle Times contributed to this report.