An anguished airline employee who told air traffic control he’d never flown before stole a dual engine 76-seat passenger plane and led two NORAD F-15Cs on an unnerving chase, complete with barrel roll, near Seattle before crashing late Friday.
The employee worked for Horizon Air, which operates the Bombardier Q-400 aircraft for Alaska Airlines. Horizon Air chief operating officer Constance Von Muehlen said the employee took the aircraft from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with no other passengers on board.
His transmissions with air traffic control were on an open frequency and were posted on social media almost instantaneously, as well as footage from people on the ground and local news outlets, who showed the aircraft flying over local neighborhoods, then executing a large barrel roll over water.
North American Aerospace Defense Command launched two F-15Cs from Portland to intercept the jet, directing the pilots to fly supersonic to expedite the intercept, while air traffic control tried to talk the pilot into landing the plane at nearby Joint Base Lewis McChord.
“NORAD fighters were working to redirect the aircraft out over the Pacific Ocean when it crashed on the southern tip of Ketron Island in the southern end of Puget Sound,” the command said in a statement. “NORAD fighters did not fire upon the aircraft. The event was subsequently passed to local rescue and law enforcement.”
In his final minutes, the employee is heard apologizing to family and friends during the transmission. He did not want to land at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, saying “those guys would rough me up if I tried to land there.”
He also nervously asked about the F-15s: “They probably got anti-aircraft!”
It is not clear whether the employee had any previous flight experience. He told air traffic control, “I’ve played some video games before,” but also asks for help trying to get the cabin pressurized so he won’t be light-headed.
“I’m just a broken guy,” he said. “I’ve got a few screws loose, I guess. I never really knew it, until now.”
Tara Copp is the Pentagon Bureau Chief for Military Times and author of the award-winning military nonfiction "The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story."