The skies above Seattle, Wash. were the focus of the world last night as a stolen plane from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was taken for a joyride around the Puget Sound area. Following a statement from Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden, we can confirm that the thief was a 29-year old Ground Service Agent for Horizon Air, a job which includes loading and unloading, towing and servicing aircraft. Previous reports speculated him to be a mechanic – due to his familiarity with the aircraft – or a customer service agent.
Alaska Airlines, the parent company of Horizon Air, issued statements on social media late last night confirmed that they were aware of the situation but didn’t elaborate more. Calling the incident merely an unauthorized takeoff, the airline left the rest to the imagination. Luckily, the 76-seat turboprop was empty with no passengers on board, a huge worry for those on the ground witnessing the reckless stunts being performed.
The aircraft was a Horizon Air Bombardier Dash 8 Q400, which usually provides regional services for Alaska Airlines throughout the western United States, a notoriously complex aircraft to fly. This Dash 8 was parked at one of SeaTac’s hardstands, common for small regional aircraft, following a ferry flight from Victoria International Airport in Canada. The scheduled flight from Victoria to Seattle had been canceled and the aircraft flew without passengers later that day back to base.
According to reports, the would-be pilot pushed back the aircraft himself and proceeded to taxi at high speed towards the runway. Alaska Air pilots reported that smoke was coming from the wheels as it was performing the takeoff roll.
The events of the incident took place at around 8 p.m. Pacific Time during twilight in the Seattle area, allowing for some of the events to be captured on video by onlookers watching safely from the ground as the plane performed aerobatic stunts over a southwestern section of the Puget Sound such as barrel rolls.
One video shows the airplane nearly recovering in time following a barrel roll from a low altitude, just barely missing the water below. Unsure of what was going on, the onlookers question their safety.
It wasn’t long before fighter jets were scrambled to intercept the stolen aircraft, with F-15s of the Oregon and Washington Air National Guard arriving the on-scene from Portland International Airport.
However, it’s unsure what the best outcome for this situation would have been. Landing the aircraft, although the best option, would’ve been extremely difficult due to the lack of training and skill on the part of the individual, meaning that either a crash or a shoot down was inevitable. His inexperience and inability to properly fly the aircraft was evident in one of the conversations with air traffic control via radio where warning sounds can be heard in the background.
“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,” said Washington Gov, Jay Inslee in a statement. “Those pilots are trained for moments like tonight and showed they are ready and capable.”
Ultimately, the aircraft did crash on Ketron Island near the area in the Sound that it had been performing stunts over, with witnesses seeing a cloud of smoke where the plane made impact. Despite the loss of a life in the cockpit, nobody else was injured or killed.
It was the best that any law enforcement or person on the ground could hope for in a situation that had very few positive outcomes.
Despite the clearly premeditated act, the individual seemed remorseful over the radio and knew what he was doing was wrong while talking to air traffic control. However, despite the remorse, the act was still incredibly reckless and could’ve affected countless people on the ground.
“This is probably jail time for life, huh? I would hope it is for a guy life me.I’ve got a lot of people that care about me,” according to radio archives obtained by The Seattle Times. “It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this. I would like to apologize to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it, until now.”
“I’m gonna land it, in a safe kind of manner. I think I’m gonna try to do a barrel roll, and if that goes good, I’m just gonna nose down and call it a night.”
Whether or not the ground staff employee turned “pilot” was able to safely land the plane, however, was unknown to all involved. In a highly-advanced cockpit such as the Dash 8 Q400’s, landing is not an easy task to even the most skilled pilot, especially without training on that particular type.
The source of continual frustration to pilots of the type, the Q400 – used throughout the world by airlines such as Air Canada Express, Flybe and WestJet Encore – has countless differences from other aircraft and unique quirks that make it difficult to fly for novice pilots. If the pilot was able to navigate back to SeaTac or another local airport, of which there are many in the Seattle area, some sort of crash landing would have been expected.
This is one of the few incidents of a stolen commercial airliner post-9/11. Despite numerous airport incursions made by fleeing criminals and others over the years, none have made it into the cockpit of an airliner and have successfully taken off and flown around the local area.
It’s unsure what steps airlines or airports will take in the future to prevent something like this from happening again, if there are any that can be taken considering the uniqueness of the event. Airlines and airports place a lot of trust in employees and although they’re subject to the same security screening as passengers in some cases, the potential physical acts of a human being cannot be screened by a metal detector or discovered in a background check.
After all, modern flight simulation software allows for non-pilots to become extremely acquainted with complex flight systems, and then all it takes is getting a job at the airport. While it’s unknown if that’s the route that the hijacker took to find himself in the cockpit of the fateful Dash 8, it is a possibility considering how far he was able to get with the aircraft.
Despite the loss of life and aircraft, the incident has shown that all employees working in security critical environments such as airports must remain vigilant at all times to prevent acts like this from happening again.