Alaska Air Says Ground Worker Stole Plane From Hub, Crashed It

(Bloomberg) -- Alaska Air Group Inc. said a ground service worker at its Horizon Air unit stole an empty passenger plane from its main hub in Seattle and flew it over Puget Sound, tailed by fighter jets, before crashing on an island.

The worker, a ground service employee since 2015 who had credentials to be around planes as part of his duties, was killed in the crash, investigators said Saturday. The 76-seat Q400 turboprop plane was parked while awaiting maintenance, and had no passengers or crew aboard, Alaska said.

National Transportation Safety Board officials said Saturday they were seeking the remains of the worker, whom officials didn’t identify, and the aircraft’s black box from the crash site on the island southwest of Tacoma, Washington.

“We’re going to locate the flight-data recorders, you’ve got the cockpit-voice recorder and the flight-data recorder,” Debra Eckrote, the NTSB’s regional chief, said at a briefing. “So those are the two items that are of importance right now.”

FBI Probing

Eckrote said the data will be analyzed in Washington and provided to the Federal Bureau of Investigation as part of its investigation into the incident. The FBI has “dozens” of people on site, said Jay Tabb, the agency’s special agent in charge.

“We will get to the bottom of it,” he said Saturday at a press conference with airline officials.

The theft of the airplane temporarily halted flights Friday night at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which is among the busiest in the U.S. by passenger traffic. Alaska Air is based in Seattle.

A widely circulated eye-witness video uploaded to Twitter on Friday evening shows a turboprop flying low as the sun sets over Puget Sound. A voice can be heard exclaiming, “That is not a drone. That is a real plane. It just did a loop-de-loop.” At least one fighter jet then enters the picture.

No Cessna

Horizon Chief Executive Officer Gary Beck said at a press conference Saturday that he doesn’t know how the man pulled off the aerial maneuvers. To his knowledge, the worker didn’t have a pilot’s license.

“Commercial aircraft are complex machines. They’re not as easy to fly as, say, a Cessna,” he said.

Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, said the plane appeared to be doing stunts or may have gone down due to a “lack of flying skills.” F-15s were scrambled out of Portland, Oregon, and a loud noise heard over Puget Sound was the military’s sonic boom, not an explosion, he wrote on Twitter.

The plane was on the ground for maintenance before the incident and wasn’t scheduled for a passenger flight, the airline later said in an additional statement. No buildings were involved in the crash.

The FBI said it didn’t appear to be an act of terrorism, though its investigation would continue.

‘Broken Guy’

The man was heard telling air-traffic controllers that he is “just a broken guy,” the Associated Press reported. “I got a lot of people that care about me and it’s gonna disappoint them to hear that I did this.”

Eckrote confirmed the worker was talking with air-traffic controllers during the flight.

The incident is “very unusual,” she said. “It’s not like we get this every day. He was able to take the aircraft and get it airborne.”

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