An empty Horizon Airlines plane has crashed after it was stolen by a ground employee from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Friday around 8 p.m., according to local authorities and a senior federal aviation source.
North American Aerospace Defense Command scrambled fighter jets to accompany the plane, which was steered away from Seattle and Tacoma by air traffic control, on its hour-long flight, according to the source. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department said the two F-15s were not involved in the crash.
The crash happened on Ketron Island, which is southwest of Tacoma, in south Puget Sound. The small island has only about 20 year-round residents.
The employee who stole the plane was 29 years old, from Pierce County and called “suicidal” by the sheriff’s department. Horizon Air COO Constance von Muehlen confirmed the man was an employee of the company.
The sheriff said this was not a terrorist incident.
“Most terrorists don’t do loops over the water,” Sheriff Paul Pastor said. “This might have been a joyride gone terribly wrong.”
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department has a number of vessels on scene, while the U.S. Coast Guard is on scene as well. A large fire could be seen from aerial shots of the island. Officials said no one on the ground was harmed, nor were any buildings.
The Pierce County Sheriff tweeted, “Stolen horizon airplane crashed into Ketron island. 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.”
Alaska Airlines tweeted about an incident involving an “unauthorized take-off of a Horizon Air Q400. They said there were no passengers on board. Horizon Air is operated by Alaska Air Group.
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
The plane, a Bombardier Dash 8 – Q400, has the capability to hold about 75 passengers and is used for short travel in the West.
Many passengers awaiting takeoff tweeted that their planes were stopped on the ground during the incident.
Sea-Tac confirmed an airline employee took off without passengers and tweeted normal operations had resumed by 9:30 p.m. local time.
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 FBI said it was in contact with officials, but it was too early for them to comment on specifics.
“The FBI is communicating with local, state, and federal partners but it is too early for us to put out details on the rapidly evolving situation,” the FBI said in a statement. “We frequently get involved with matters related to aircraft so we are poised to act if information develops to suggest a federal criminal nexus.”
Brad Tilden, Alaska Air Group CEO, released a statement saying the company was “working to find out everything we possibly can about what happened.”
“We are still gathering facts, but at this point we understand there was only one person aboard, an employee of Horizon Air, who was operating the aircraft. I want to share how incredibly sad all of us at Alaska are about this incident,” Tilden said. “Our heart is heavy for the family and friends of the person involved.
“We’re working to find out everything we possibly can about what happened, working with the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Transportation Safety Board,” he added. “We are giving those investigators our full support and cooperation. With these investigations underway, our focus will remain on supporting the family of the individual involved, the broader Alaska and Horizon family, and our communities and guests.”