Investigators are working to find out how an airline employee managed to steal an empty Horizon Air turboprop plane, and take off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport before fatally crashing into a small island in the Puget Sound nearby.
- Horizon Air employee was a ground service agent, not a pilot
- The plane was pursued by military aircraft before it crashed
- The man was the only one aboard the plane
Officials said the man had been a Horizon employee for three-and-a-half years and had clearance to be among aircraft, but to their knowledge, he was not a licensed pilot.
The 29-year-old used a pushback tractor to first manoeuvre the aircraft so he could board and then take off on Friday evening, authorities added.
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It is unclear how he attained the skills to do loops in the aircraft before crashing about an hour after taking off, authorities said.
The plane was pursued by military aircraft before it crashed on tiny Ketron Island, southwest of Tacoma, Washington.
Video showed fiery flames amid trees on the island, which is sparsely populated and only accessible by ferry. No structures on the ground were damaged, Alaska Airlines said.
Investigators expect they will be able to recover both the cockpit voice recorder and the event data recorder from the plane.
A Horizon Air Q400 plane like the one the man stole from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. (Reuters: Jan Seba)
Officials from Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air said they were still working closely with authorities as they investigate what happened.
“Safety is our number one goal,” Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden said.
“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 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 said.
“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.”
Mr Southers 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.
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.
The plane crashed in a heavily wooded area of thick underbrush on Ketron Island around 50kms from the airport. (AP/Ted S. Warren)
Video showed the Horizon Air Q400 doing large loops and other dangerous manoeuvres 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 take-off and gate approach and de-ice planes.
Horizon Air CEO Gary Beck said it was not clear how the man knew how to start the engine, which requires a series of switches and levers.
“We don’t know how he learned to do that,” he said.