Seattleites got a serious scare on Friday evening when an airport employee stole a large turboprop airplane owned by the Alaska Air Group from the area’s Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and took it for an unauthorized flight. The incident ended when the empty 76-seater Q400 Bombardier airplane crashed on a small island 25 miles to the south of the airport, killing the unsanctioned pilot—but only after an hour of confusion in Seattle, as flights were grounded, air traffic control tried to persuade the man to land the plane, and F-15 fighter jets scrambled out of nearby Portland, Oregon. No other injuries have been reported.
In a statement, Alaska Airlines says the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Transportation Safety Board are all investigating.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department identified the deceased employee as a 29-year-old male ground service agent, but did not release his name. Radio chatter with air traffic control indicates—but does not confirm—that the man was suicidal. The employee worked for Horizon Air, a regional airline that is owned by the Alaska Air Group. According to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the fighter jets did not fire on the airplane. And flights resumed in Seattle around an hour after the rogue employee took off from the airport.
A large part of the investigation will focus on how the man was able to just take a plane. If he was an authorized employee of an airline, it wouldn’t have been that difficult to get on the plane itself. It’s not that the area around an airplane’s ramp is a free-for-all, says Douglas M. Moss, who was a commercial pilot for 20 years and now runs AeroPacific Consulting, an aviation accident investigation agency. Each employee allowed in this sensitive area—baggage handlers, maintenance workers, flight attendants, and pilots—goes through background checks. Employees are also trained to ask others about what they’re doing in the area. “Everyone has a duty to approach someone or address them if they see someone in a place they shouldn’t be,” says Moss, noting that he had been asked to display his badge multiple times in the area while working as a pilot.
But there are few official mechanisms restricting authorized employees from the airplane. “Everyone’s on an equal par,” says Moss. “Pilots or baggage loaders, they have the same sort of access.”
Getting the plane moving would be a bigger challenge. Starting one is not a question of jimmying the right locks or shorting the right wires—the mechanisms are much more complicated, even if there’s no ignition key. Pilots have to sit down with a manual and study to get it done. “For a generic employee to even know how to start the engines, that’s a task in and of itself,” says Moss.
Getting it in the air should have been very difficult, too. The employee had to know exactly how to retract the steps and landing gear, the route to taxi toward the runway, and how to take off, all without clearance. And he had to do it quickly—experts say the air traffic control would have immediately noted an unauthorized airplane taxiing in the airport, and would have alerted the police and fire department, who might have been able to throw up barriers to prevent the takeoff.
Thankfully, there were no passengers on board the airplane during the Friday night incident. The reassuring news is that it would have been much harder for the man to hijack a plane that was in service. When passengers board a plane, the flight crew and cabin crew are already in place, per FAA instructions. This helps secure the aircraft.
In the days and weeks to come, expect authorities to look at ways to prevent even authorized employees from pulling off a similar maneuver. “They might have to look at things like when an airplane is scheduled to be in service,” says Alan Stolzer, a safety expert at the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. A computer lockout could restrict controls, outside of normal operational times. “There may be a technological solution to manage when a plane should be flying,” he says.
Aviation experts who watched the remarkable footage of the airplane gliding over the Seattle-Tacoma area say that one thing is for sure: This unauthorized pilot must have had some flying experience. Footage shows the plane performing loops and maybe even a barrel roll before crashing into a remote Washington State island, maneuvers that would have been difficult to pull off—particularly in the Q400 Bombardier turboprop, an airplane Moss describes as “not acrobatic.”
In air traffic control chatter preserved online, the man can be heard saying he didn’t need much help controlling the plane because he had “played some video games before.” But controllers had to talk him through some of the airplane’s controls, an indication he wasn’t familiar with the Q400’s particular control mechanisms.
How did the man learn to do all this? It’s possible, Moss notes, that he was a mechanic trained to do engine runs. Or it’s possible he learned how to fly on his own time.
The heroes of the hour-long incident appear to be the air traffic controllers. They calmly talked to the man, who they referred to as “Rich” and “Richard,” directing him away from populated areas and over water. They even tried to talk him into landing at a nearby military base.
Part of the radio calls between the plane and the ground was captured by aviation journalist Jon Ostrower:
The controllers’ preternatural calm was not an accident but a well-practiced skill. “Controllers are well trained on what to do in anomalous situations like this,” says Stolzer. “The way they can interact with pilots and other folks can make a big difference.”
And in this case, they may have helped avert terrible disaster. The investigation is in its earliest stages, but one thing the aviation industry is particularly good at doing is learning from mistakes and accidents, and putting procedures in place to make sure they can’t happen again.