(Reuters) – Federal authorities on Saturday were seeking to learn what drove an airline worker to steal an empty airplane from Seattle’s airport in a security scare that caused the scrambling of U.S. fighter jets and ended when the plane crashed onto a sparsely populated island.
A Horizon Air ground service agent got into a Bombardier Q400 turboprop aircraft on Friday night in a maintenance area at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and took off, Horizon sister carrier Alaska Airline said.
He flew for about one hour, often erratically, before crashing on Ketron Island in Puget Sound, about 25 miles (40 km) to the southwest.
The 29-year-old man, who has not been named, was suicidal and appeared to have acted alone, according to the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, which said the employee was believed to have been killed in the crash.
“Doing stunts in air or lack of flying skills caused crash into Island,” the Sheriff’s Department said on Twitter.
In partial recordings of his conversations with air traffic controllers that were published online by Broadcastify.com, the man said he was sorry to disappoint people who cared about him and described himself as a “broken guy.”
“Got a few screws loose, I guess,” he is heard saying in the recording. “Never really knew it until now.”
The Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Transportation Safety Board were investigating the incident.
“Until the FBI has the opportunity to get better background on the person, find out what motive they had, it’s a little too early to make a determination on what the objective was,” Debra Eckrote, the NTSB’s western Pacific region chief, said at a news conference.
Two F-15 fighter jets took to the air from a base in Portland, Oregon, and were on the scene within minutes. The jets were armed but did not open fire, North American Aerospace Defense Command spokesman Cameron Hillier said by phone.
Instead, the F-15 pilots and air traffic controllers tried to guide the plane west, away from populated areas, said Hillier. No one was hurt on the ground, authorities said.
It was unclear how the employee was able to taxi the plane on a runway and take off without authorization.
“We’re working to find out everything we possibly can about what happened,” Brad Tilden, chief executive of Alaska Air Group (ALK.N), said in a statement.
The Bombardier Q400 turboprop is designed for short-distance flights and can seat 76 passengers, Alaska Air said.
Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Mark Potter and Steve Orlofsky