Breaking: Aircraft Stolen From Seattle Airport, F-15s Scrambled

Well this is bizarre (and scary). It appears that at some point this evening, a Horizon Q400 was absconded with from the Seattle airport, leading to a ground stop and departures hold at SeaTac. Mike was flying out this evening, and his plane was held on the tarmac for about an hour.

F-15 fighters were scrambled out of PDX to intercept the plane, though it appears the operator of the aircraft subsequently crashed the aircraft.

While the airport has now re-opened, operations are still a mess, and details are otherwise very light at the moment. Alaska initially confirmed awareness of an “unauthorized take-off” of one of their planes:

The SeaTac airport authority has confirmed the “unauthorized takeoff” as well, along with the subsequent crash:

It appears the aircraft was operated by a Horizon employee, who has not yet been identified beyond being a 29 year old male. Horizon Air Chief Operating Officer Constance von Muehlen has since given the following statement:

There will obviously be a massive investigation here, as the circumstances are nearly inconceivable. I think aviation journalist Jon Ostrower summed it up nicely:

Speaking of which, if you aren’t already, I’d recommending following @jonostrower on Twitter as this story develops. He’s based in Seattle, and is one of the most careful reporters around, so will have solid info. The Pierce County Sheriff’s office has responded to the crash scene, and is providing frequent (though possibly too frequent) updates as well. Alaska will share further details and statements through their blog.

If you want to hear some of the ATC audio, you can find some of it below, but…I was listening to this play out live, and want to caution that it’s incredibly sad, and potentially distressing.

VASAviation has complied the full audio here:

This is just so very sad, on many levels. The air traffic controllers are so calm and kind throughout, but there’s a lot to unpack here.

There will be more information in the coming days and months as the incident is investigated. In the meantime, our thoughts are with the family of the aircraft operator, as this must be very difficult for them.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Comments

  1. I have flown this plane before and I fly regionally with Alaska all the time. This is so scary. My thoughts are with the families. I hope everyone is ok.

  2. That is very scary. If it happened in 1997 then we would still be talking about it now, but in 2018? That would be a potential disaster. And come on, those Q400 are not that easy to operate by one, this has gotta be someone with training. It has to be premeditated, either by a terrorist organization or a madman. We know AS miles are valuable, but if you want the miles, you cannot just hop in a turboprop and generate it yourself!

  3. @ beyounged — It is incredibly irresponsible to suggest terrorism, when nothing so far points to that.

    It would be well within the training and skillset of a commercial aircraft mechanic to startup the engines and do other basic pre-flight steps.

  4. @Tiffany

    But it just sounds improbable for any mechanic to push the throttle, reach take off velocity, and be ok to rotate on a runway/taxiway? So so many things have to go wrong in order for a maintenance personnel to take an aircraft airbourne, as at every step there is a way to prevent that from happening, right?

  5. Nothing about the woman detained at DXB airport for having a glass of wine on an inbound Emirates flight?

  6. Why is it so inconceivable for 2018 that someone who potentially works at the airport could grab an opportunity, either through misuse of trust or simply, when no one is around, and just hop on a plane and go? Once he’s on his way, there’s not much that can be done to stop them. Everyone will just scram to stay out of the way. There’s a lot of preparation on stopping air to air situations, but are there protocols for dealing with such situations on the ground? Is there even time before someone realises they are on a take off roll?

  7. Stunned by the NYT notification. I’m Seattle based, this city is mourning tonight. As a constant SEA traveller, I’m still in shock this happened at my airport.

  8. I was at SeaTac tonight as well when this happened. Deplaned, boarded again, and pushed back with a delay of a couple of hours.

    Hard to believe, and very sad to hear to air traffic communication.

  9. Was anyone on board? How was the man able to perform unauthorised takeoff? (Can’t listen to the audio here bc work and I don’t have earphones)

  10. Yes it’s sad. Also? How did ATC or someone in the tower not notice an unauthorized plane taxiing out to a runway?

  11. Man, this is nuts. There’s an update that the guy was a ground services agent. The theory seems to be that he was suicidal, which certainly seems reasonable. Glad no one else was hurt, and sorry this guy wasn’t able to get help before doing this. What sort of health benefits do airport ground crew have?

  12. Why isn’t anyone wondering how an unauthorized plane was able to leave the ramp, taxi to a runway and take off before anyone noticed something was wrong? Suicide is the least of our worries here.

  13. Ground service workers have no benefits (am one).

    If they are employed through a contract service provider especially, no flight discounts, no health benefits, shit schedule, and minimum wage.

  14. @ Neil. S. @NSS — There will almost certainly be a minute-by-minute investigation into the final hours/days of this man, and airports of course have cameras everywhere, so I’m sure we’ll know eventually.

    Alaska often parks their Q400s away from the terminal on hard stands in the evening, so if that was the case ramp congestion would be less of a concern. And the Q400 is designed to takeoff and land at tiny airports, so it’s conceivable one could take off from the perimeter of the property, rather than joining the takeoff queue on the main runway. And that could all happen quickly enough that even people who noticed couldn’t directly intervene.

    But, there are a lot of questions.

  15. @ Matt — The man operating the plane was clearly not in a good mental state during the conversations. ATC talks to him calmly, keeping him out over the water as much as possible, and even getting a Q400 pilot on the channel to talk him through landing safely. But there’s a bit of gallows humor and other comments that suggest that wasn’t going to be an option for the operator. It’s just sad.

  16. @ Julia — Hardly equivalent, in my opinion, though I suspect that woman was not detained for “having a glass of wine”, but rather for not having the proper visa, filming immigration authorities, screaming in the airport, and being otherwise belligerent.

  17. As a former aircraft mechanic I can see how this was easily accomplished. In fact, I’m surprised it has not happened more often.

  18. I wonder what this guy’s toxicology will show. Clearly he had mental issues but one has to wonder if there were drugs onboard as well, setting this whole thing in motion.

  19. This guy had no intention of ever landing. It really quite sad because he sounds like someone who just fell apart mentally. The air controller was excellent, some of those men and women don’t get enough credit for the work they do. Such a stressful job.

  20. And while those of us who have to deal with TSA and being stalked by Air Marshals get our food confiscated, our pocket knife taken away, being denied boarding and dragged off the plane, reported to police for standing our ground against a dumb FA (who BS about FAA regulations).

    Still believe those agencies keep our skies safer??

    Forget about gun control. Mass shooting has taken to the skies.
    So now if only a mass shooter (or sleeper cell) can infiltrate (get employment in) an airline maintenance facility.
    The question is why the F-15 didn’t shoot it down sooner. Police shoot people holding weapons all the time, even those who are mentally ill.
    This is not like you wandered into restricted airspace. This guy probably have been warned before even taking off. I can’t think of any single good intention of stealing an aircraft. We are all lucky that this is just Q400 not 777s

    By the way, condolences to those involved.

  21. @Eskimo He wasn’t shot down sooner as he was flying near a populated area: Would you want the wreckage of a Q400 to come tumbling down over your neighborhood?

  22. Eskimo – Rather disturbingly, the military are more responsible and restrained than US police are.

    They correctly calculated that letting him fly out to sea would produce a better outcome than going in all guns blazing.

    I really get the impression a large proportion of the US police force are wannabe military but don’t have the training to use military tactics effectively.

  23. Looks like we have a whole new area of the airport to sic the TSA on now.
    I talked with a former Horizon employee who told me this plane will not be missed by the crews. It was one of two that were bought from China second hand and had so many cycles on it that it was embarrassingly worn out,

  24. @Speedbird
    I agree that they should not shoot it down over a populated area. But what if it turned back to SeaTac, which is more populated. Collateral damage is very likely unavoidable in that scenario. There are no guarantees this person didn’t have bad intentions. From the video showing the Q400 doing the loop over water likely below 1000 ft, that seems like a clean shot with little collateral damage. They should have downed the Q400 there.

    @Callum
    Agree, they likely calculated more than police as most military are more sophisticated. But the point I’m trying to make is why didn’t they shoot down when it was safe(r) over water. Like I said, no one know the true intention of that person at that moment nor could anyone trust the tiny amount of fuel told. If he could sneak a plane out, I’m sure he could have sneak a full tank of fuel. A fully loaded Q400 should cause a decent casualty if the person wanted to. At least his intention wasn’t evil, since he didn’t do any of the nasty stuff. But at that moment no one would have know.

    I am just concern why they didn’t shoot when they have a clean shot.

  25. No way the F-15s should shoot down a civilian aircraft if there was any other possibility. They needed to give Rich every opportunity to live. They could splash him at a moment’s notice. Then we could add suicide by F-15 to our vocabulary.

    Rich looked like a pretty good pilot. A video shows him pulling out of a Split-S just above the water. That’s airshow material. He then performs a climbing turn with a steep bank which could easily lead to a stall/spin for an untrained “aircraft operator.” If the only flight training he had was on a pc video game or simulator, that must be one hell of a video game.

  26. Did the ground movement/apron controller realise that this aircraft was taxying without permission?

    If so,could he not have instructed vehicles to block its path?

  27. Just listened to the audio and it was the exact opposite of what I imagined someone on a suicide mission would sound like. He was calm, very aware of what he was doing and how it would affect others and even joking with atc. Obviously he was living in a dark place to go through with it but I assumed any person doing that would have a lot of panic, fear or uncertainty or whatever, some crazy emotion. I wish it never even got close to this..l

  28. @Mike

    Expert testimony on how someone on a suicide mission would sound??
    When Mohammed Atta said he had some planes, he “was calm, very aware of what he was doing and how it would affect others ” just before he put AA11 into the north tower.

    The answer is you can’t judge by the sound. You saw a weapon drawn, you need to neutralize the threat. The Q400 should have been downed over the water.

  29. @ Eskimo — I believe a military strike against a US commercial aircraft, particularly over a US city, requires the direct authorization of the President. That’s not a decision a local commander can/should make, and this happened very quickly in the middle of the night Eastern.

  30. @Tiffany – actually a strike against a commercial aircraft in the US aerospace does not require a presidential order, but simply a directive from the US Secretary of Defense if threat is considered imminent.

    Furthermore, terrorism or not, is frankly too subjective. The actions reported here may have been very differently perceived by the media if the perpetrator was of a different ethnicity. As an analogy, mass shootings in the US are not considered acts of terrorism, when in fact, they are.

  31. @Juan M

    You would never understand unless you knew someone who was at twin towers. Defense systems fails because you don’t adhere and react to warning signs. Stupid people saying bomb on a plane is one thing. This is someone who is not suppose to be there controlling a plane.

    Imagine someone with a loaded gun in your yard and you just say, I love how my neighbors are taking a person with a loaded gun seriously. The police is there saying put the gun down but that person ignores the police completely and continues to swing the gun around.
    You don’t take it seriously because the gun safety is still on, there is no harm??? I hope you live until 60.

  32. The MSM is not being honest about Richard Russell (the man who stole a 76 seat airliner from Seattle/Tacoma airport)
    The entire act was done because he was sick of being bashed as a white male, and wanted to commit suicide in a way no minority would ever have the talent to.
    The MSM is being very misleading about what happened. They got two points right: He stole an airliner and died crashing it. Here’s what they did not dare say:

    He stole the plane to intentionally commit suicide with it. He wanted to commit suicide with it because he had been bashed to death as a white male and believed he was cheated out of his rightful career path (this is a reality for many white males now, he was probably not delusional about it.) He was talented with video productions, journalism, was a world traveler and a botanist. He was stuck as an airport grounds maintenance worker.

    No one knows where he got the skills but all the aerobatics were intentional and were announced by him before he did it. The MSM is not being honest about this and is saying his flight was chaotic. It was not, it was in fact well executed and intentional. He was followed by fighter jets throughout all but the first few minutes of a flight that lasted just short of an hour. He was running out of fuel, and with an engine starting to stall said “I am going to do a barrel roll, nose down, and call it a night”. And that’s exactly what he did, the plane crashed where he wanted it to because he maintained control to the end. The MSM is reluctant to say it this way. They are outright refusing to say it as it happened.

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