US investigators are reconstructing how an airline agent stole an empty commercial airliner from Seattle International Airport and managed to lift it up in the air before doing stunts while military jets chased it.
After about an hour of flight, the 29-year-old pilot crashed into a small island.
Authorities said Saturday that the man was an employee of Horizon Airlines for more than three years and that he was allowed to be among the planes, but that, as far as they know, he was not a licensed pilot.
A US official informed on the matter told The Associated Press that the man was Richard Russell.
He used a machine called a push tractor to maneuver the plane first, which was in a maintenance area, to board and then take off on Friday afternoon, authorities said.
Surprising video showing the Horizon Air Q400, a turboprop aircraft with capacity for 76 people and sometimes called Dash 8, makes large loops and other dangerous maneuvers when the sun sets on Puget Sound.
Two F-15C planes were pulled from Portland and chased the plane, but authorities say they did not fire at it before crashing on the small Ketron island.
Russell could be heard on audio recordings that tell air traffic controllers that he is "just a broken guy."
An air traffic controller tried to convince him to land the plane.
"There's a track just to the right in about a mile," says the controller, referring to an airfield at the Lewis-McChord Joint Base.
"Oh, man, those guys will mistreat me if I try to land there," the man replied, and then added, "This is probably jail for life, huh?
"I have a lot of people who care about me, they'll be disappointed to hear that I did this … just a broken guy, I have some loose screws, I guess."
Russell's family said in a statement that they are stunned and disconsolate.
At a press conference, officials from Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air said they were still working with authorities while investigating what happened.
The bizarre incident involving a worker that authorities said was suicidal points to one of the greatest potential dangers to commercial air travel: airline or airport employees cause chaos.
"The biggest threat we have to aviation is the internal threat," Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent and transportation safety expert, told The Associated Press. "Here we have an employee who was tested at the level to have access to the aircraft and had a skill set competent enough to take off with that plane."
There was no connection to terrorism, said Ed Troyer, a spokesman for the sheriff's department.
The coaches of Wasilla High School in Alaska, where Russell was a football player, wrestler and discus thrower, told the Anchorage Daily News that they were shocked by the news.
Athletics coach Gary Howell said he was "absolutely the kind of kid you want on your team."
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