OLYMPIA, Washington — Investigators are piecing together how an airline ground agent working his regular shift stole an empty Horizon Air turboprop plane, took off from Sea-Tac International Airport and fatally crashed into a small island in the Puget Sound after being chased by military jets that were quickly scrambled to intercept the aircraft.
Officials said Saturday that the man was a 3.5-year Horizon employee and had clearance to be among aircraft, but that to their knowledge, he wasn’t a licensed pilot. The 29-year-old man used a machine called a pushback tractor to first maneuver the aircraft so he could board and then take off Friday evening, authorities added.
It’s unclear how he attained the skills to do loops in the aircraft before crashing about an hour after taking off into a small island in the Puget Sound, authorities said. He crashed nearly an hour after the plane was taken from a maintenance area, though officials said that it did not appear that the fighter jets were involved in the crash of the aircraft. In a news release issued Saturday, the North American Aerospace Defense Command said two F-15C alert aircraft were scrambled from Portland but did not fire upon the plane.
At a news conference in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, officials from Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air said that they are still working closely with authorities as they investigate what happened.
“Safety is our No. 1 goal,” said Brad Tilden, CEO of Alaska Airlines. “Last night’s event is going to push us to learn what we can from this tragedy so that we can ensure this does not happen again at Alaska Air Group or at any other airline.”
The bizarre incident involving a worker who authorities said was suicidal points to one of the biggest potential perils for commercial air travel: airline or airport employees causing mayhem.
“The greatest threat we have to aviation is the insider threat,” Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent and transportation security expert, told The Associated Press. “Here we have an employee who was vetted to the level to have access to the aircraft and had a skill set proficient enough to take off with that plane.”
Seattle FBI agent in charge Jay Tabb Jr. cautioned that the investigation would take a lot of time, and details, including the employee’s name, would not be released right away. Dozens of personnel were out at the crash site, and co-workers and family members were being interviewed, he said.
There was no connection to terrorism, said Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the sheriff’s department.
Video showed the Horizon Air Q400 doing large loops and other dangerous maneuvers as the sun set on Puget Sound. There were no passengers aboard.
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, as well as handle baggage.
Southers, the aviation security expert, said the man could have caused mass destruction. “If he had the skill set to do loops with a plane like this, he certainly had the capacity to fly it into a building and kill people on the ground,” he said.