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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 18 August 2018

Suicidal US man who stole Alaska Airlines plane had airport credentials

'I'm a broken man,' the airport worker told air traffic controller

Alaska Airlines planes are seen at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. An airline employee "conducted an unauthorised takeoff" before crashing. AFP
Alaska Airlines planes are seen at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. An airline employee "conducted an unauthorised takeoff" before crashing. AFP

An airline employee who stole a Horizon Air passenger plane from a Seattle airport had legitimate access to be near planes.

Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden said the man had been "background checked." The man told air traffic controllers that he was a "broken guy" but also joked about whether the airline would hire him as a pilot if he landed safely.

Authorities on Saturday also said the 29-year-old man used a machine called a pushback tractor to first manoeuvre the aircraft so he could board and then take off Friday evening.

An unnamed a U.S. official briefed on the matter told The Associated Press the perpetrators name was Richard Russell. A Facebook page appearing to belong to the man said he was from Wasilla, Alaska, and lived in Sumner, Washington, and was married in 2012.

He stole the twin-engined turboprop Bombardier Q400 plane from the maintenance area of the Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington state on Friday night and flew over Seattle for about an hour before crashing on an island in Puget Sound. There were no passengers aboard.

Two military F-15s were scrambled to chase the stolen plane, but officials said the jets were not involved in the crash.

The crash occurred because the person was "doing stunts in the air or lack of flying skills," the Pierce County Sheriff's Department said. It described the man as suicidal.

In audio recordings with air traffic controllers, the man said he did not want to disappoint them but that he was "just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess".

The man — addressed as “Rich” — said he was concerned he was going to run low on fuel. Later, he said he's "got a lot of people that care about me".

During another part of the exchange, the man said he said he did not want to land at a nearby military base. He told air traffic controllers: "Those guys will rough me up if I try and land there."

The sheriff's department said they were conducting a background investigation on the man, whose name was not immediately released. It had described him as a airline mechanic, but Horizon Air said later that he was a ground service agent responsible for directing and de-icing aircraft.

It is not clear how the man was able to taxi the plane on a runway and take off without authorisation.

"Okay this insane. A pilot on the plane in front of us just went rogue and took off on an empty plane bypassing orders from the tower," tweeted Ben Schaechter, a passenger on an aircraft that was taxiing to take off before the incident.

Video footage on social media showed the plane flying above the Seattle area with an F15 fighter jet following it. Witnesses reported seeing the plane being chased by military aircraft before it crashed on Ketron Island, about 40 kilometres south-west of Tacoma, Washington.

Law enforcement officials stand at a staging area, Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, at the ferry terminal in Steilacoom, Wash., near where a Coast Guard spokeswoman said the agency was responding to a report of a smoke plume and possible plane crash. Earlier in the evening, officials at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport said an Alaska Airlines plane had been stolen and later crashed. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Law enforcement officials stand at a staging area at the ferry terminal in Steilacoom, after responding to a report of a smoke plume and possible plane crash. AP Photo

The crash sparked a fire in the dense forest. Flames lit up the night as they spread from the burning wreckage to nearby trees.

The US Coast Guard sent a vessel to the crash scene after witnesses reported seeing a large plume of smoke in the air, Petty Officer Ali Flockerzi said.

Horizon Air is part of Alaska Air Group and operates shorter routes throughout the US West. The Bombardier Q400 carries 76 passengers.

Brad Tilden, the chief executive of Alaska Air Group, said the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Transportation Safety Board were investigating the incident.

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