Troubled SeaTac Airport Employee Steals, Crashes Aircraft

Seatac

An Employee of Seattle–Tacoma International Airport, shorthanded to SeaTac Airport or Sea–Tac, took a Horizon Air Bombardier DHC8-Q400 on what authorities called an “un-authorized takeoff” before crashing into Ketron Island in Puget Sound.

KOIN 6 News:

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office said a 29-year-old mechanic from an unknown airline stole the Horizon Q400 plane. He was suicidal.

The sheriff’s office said he was either doing stunts or did not have flying skills, which caused him to crash into or near Ketron Island.

Two F-15 fighter jets were following the stolen plane, but authorities said they weren’t involved in the crash. The sheriff’s office said they made it to Seattle from Portland in a matter of minutes and kept the stolen plane away from people on the ground.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office said this was not a terrorist incident.

The man certainly seemed troubled, and probably suicidal, in his dealings with air traffic control:

Seattle PI

In earlier Air Traffic Control communications, the suspect asked questions like, “Alright, um, I just kinda want to do a couple of maneuvers to see what it can do before I put her down, you know?” He also said, “I wouldn’t know how to land it. I wasn’t really planning on landing it.”

“Man, I’m sorry about this, I hope this doesn’t ruin your day,” he said later. “It’s a blast, I’ve played video games before, so I, uh, know what I’m doing a little bit.”

At one point the control tower pointed the pilot of the stolen aircraft towards the runway at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), to which he responded, “Aw those guys will rough me up if I tried landing there. I think I might mess something up there too. I wouldn’t want to do that. Hopefully — oh they probably got anti-aircraft.”

“No they don’t have any of that stuff, we’re just trying to find a place for you to land safely,” the tower responded.

We will no doubt learn more about this incident as the investigation gets underway, but the bigger picture is as we approach the 17th anniversary of 9/11 our airports still have major security concerns. A suicidal employee could just as easily been an individual with far more malicious intent. So how did one employee get an aircraft airborne at a major US airport? Authorities have plenty to review and explain.

Those seeking to do harm to us were no doubt watching. On the positive side scrambled F-15’s arrived in relative short order, but the Seattle area has quite a few potential targets that if a dedicated bad actor got an aircraft up and went straight for one it may not be not be in time. Just looping around and crashing into the terminal itself would be massive potential damage and casualties. In addition to the horrifying prospect of Seattle itself and surrounding population centers, there are (relative to aircraft flight) nearby Navy facilities at Bremerton and elsewhere, and the previously mentioned McChord Air Force Base and Joint Base Lewis-McChord Facilities to think of.

Just in taxing the aircraft around a major airport like SeaTac and getting airborne, it is a miracle no one got hurt or killed. We were lucky he crashed in an unpopulated area. Even in shooting down rogue aircraft once intercepted the potential for debris to cause damage and harm is still there, especially in a metro area. The intercepting pilots are trained to monitor, push the aircraft away from populated areas, and if not harming anyone let it go under observation, but they can shot it down if posing a threat. It is hard to fathom, but it is the lesser of evils in such circumstance, and the standard needs to be made known that if you have a rogue aircraft that refuses to comply, even if just talking through the troubled pilots issues, authorities will make the right call and shoot it down. Otherwise, some terrorist with a plane full of people might sob story his way into an unspeakable tragedy.

We were lucky this time.


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Born and raised in West Virginia, Andrew has since lived and traveled around the world several times over. Though frequently writing about politics out of a sense of duty and love of country, most of the time he would prefer discussions on history, culture, occasionally nerding on aviation, and his amateur foodie tendencies. He can usually be found misspelling/misusing words on Twitter @four4thefire.

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7 thoughts on “Troubled SeaTac Airport Employee Steals, Crashes Aircraft

  1. I am not a mental health professional and I am conscious of the cautions actual mental health professionals dispense about medicalizing odd behavior, much less offering an amateur’s armchair diagnosis. Which sentence is the mandatory precedent for ignoring all of the caution and modesty the sentence demands. It feels irresistible to infer other than that this incident was the result of a profound mental health issue, a manic-phase decision to suicide. Nor does it feel that large a leap to presume that there was some significant substance abuse going on immediately before the theft of the plane.

    On another note, the quality of the ATC’s voice and participation in the conversation is spectacular — even, calm, gently bidding to assert control — precisely what you’d hope for. That ATC has nothing but his words to try and bring the situation to an optimal end, and while I’m not sure this ending was optimal (we have at least one death, a fire raging on a forested island with what’s reported to be about 20 year-round inhabitants and a large number of vacation homes, and however much the plane was worth in property loss) I agree with the OP (and everyone else for whom 9/11 is a living memory) that this could have been WAY worse.

    Lastly, I’ll note that while normally I’m very very jealous of pilots who get to fly interceptor aircraft because that looks like an amazingly cool thing to do for a career, getting the order to fire and actually executing it in this case would have been somber, terrible duty indeed.

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    • The ATC was outstanding good catch pointing that out. The recording will be dissected but I’m content to leave it at a disturbed person who IMO realized at some point what he had done and then the bad decisions lead to the conclusion. Be interesting if we ever find out toxicology or if the stress of situation just broke the man. We may never know.

      I do very much want the timeline of how he got it off the ground.

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      • I’m content to leave it at a disturbed person who IMO realized at some point what he had done and then the bad decisions lead to the conclusion.

        It reminded me of McWatt’s (*) death in Catch 22. I found that episode in the book extremely moving because I always felt I would have made the same decision as McWatt. There are things you can’t come back from

        (*) and Kid Sampson’s of course (**)

        (**) or Hungry Joe’s if you saw the movie but didn’t read the book (***)

        (***) BTW, I hate it when characters are robbed of their story lives (sic) to buff up other characters

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  2. The criticism that TSA focuses too much on passengers and not enough on employees has been a constant refrain since the day it came into existence.

    I doubt this will actually cause a significant re-ordering of priorities.

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  3. I have a private pilot’s license, and I have a friend who worked as a mechanic.

    Many mechanics have taxi privileges, which are kind of important, since they need someone to move the plane around from it’s normal place into the shop, or out somewhere where they can do a runup to see if everything is working.

    So, it just has never been that hard for someone to take the plane out to a runup, then call tower, and ask for a VFR slot to take off, assuming the weather is reasonable. I’m sure they know the procedure.

    Ultimately this is about entrusting an airplane to someone. We’ve seen a suicidal pilot or two, though not generally a terrorist suicide. In some ways, yes, it’s scary, but the procedure for preventing it is the same as the procedure for preventing a suicide by someone you just handed over a giant crane, or some other piece of heavy equipment. It’s all dangerous, and you work hard to make sure the person you give the keys to is trustworthy.

    I don’t think the TSA has to focus more on this level. Aircraft owners have every reason to try to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen.

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