Seattle, WA – The Horizon Air employee who stole an aircraft from Sea-Tac International Airport on Friday night told air traffic controllers that he expected to have a “moment of serenity” while he took in the sights around him, and admitted he never planned to land the plane, audio recordings of the communications revealed.
The unnamed 29-year-old male employee, who the air traffic controllers referred to as “Richard” and “Rich,” performed “stunts in the air” and was believed to be suicidal, Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Ed Troyer said, according to The Washington Post.
The incident began at approximately 8 p.m.
The employee somehow managed to get control of the unoccupied plane get an empty 76-seat Bombardier Q400 airborne.
“They don’t necessarily use a key,” National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Northwest Regional Office Chief Debra Eckrote explained during a Saturday morning press conference. “There’s switches that they use to start the aircraft. So, if the person has a basic understanding – from what I understand he was support personnel, ground personnel – they probably do have at least a basic understanding on how to start the aircraft, but I don’t know what his background is.”
According to Horizon Air, ground service agents help to direct aircraft on the ground, handle luggage, and de-ice planes before flight.
Within minutes, two F-15s were en route from the Portland Air Force base to intercept the stolen plane, the North American Aerospace Defense Command said, according to The Washington Post.
The armed jets attempted to steer the stolen aircraft towards the water, and did not fire on the plane, Air Force Captain Cameron Hillier told the Washington Post.
During the 90 minutes that ensued, Rich held a generally upbeat conversation with the air traffic controllers as they calmly attempted to help him land the plane.
He said he started off the flight with a lot of fuel, but that it “burned quite a bit faster than I expected.”
The air traffic controller encouraged him to land at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord military base, but Rich laughed him off.
“Oh man, those guys will rough me up if I try and land there!” Rich said. “I think I might mess something up there, too. I wouldn’t want to do that. They probably have antiaircraft.”
The air traffic controller assured him that the base did not have those weapons, and said they just wanted to find a safe space for him to land the plane.
“Dang, did you talk to McChord yet? Cause I don’t know if I’d be happy with you telling me I could land like that, cause I could mess some stuff up,” he said.
“I’m not quite ready to bring it down just yet,” Rich told him. “But holy smokes, I got to stop looking at the fuel, because it’s going down quick.”
In the recordings, the air traffic controller told another party that Rich was “just flying around” and that he needed “some help controlling his aircraft,” but Rich disagreed.
“Nah…I mean, I don’t need that much help. I’ve played some video games before,” he assured them. “I would like to figure out how to get this…make it pressurized or something so I’m not so lightheaded.”
Other pilots and air traffic control calmly attempted to convince Rich to attempt to land safely, but he had other plans.
“Hey I want the coordinates of that orca. You know, the mam orca with the baby? I want to go see that guy,” he told them.
“Hey do you think if I land this successfully, Alaska will give me a job as a pilot?” he asked. “Yeah right!...Nah, I’m a white guy.”
Rich also asked about what the weather looked like in the Olympic mountains, and commented on the turbulence around Mount Rainier.
“Everything’s peachy,” he told the controller. “Peachy keen. Just did a little circle around Rainier – it’s beautiful. I think I’ve got some gas to go check out the Olympics.”
Rich later told the air traffic controller about the mountains.
“Man, have you been to the Olympics? These guys are gorgeous! Holy smokes,” he marveled.
“Man, the signs went by so fast,” he said at one point. “I was thinking, like, I’m going to have this moment of serenity, take in all the sights. There’s a lot of pretty stuff, but their prettier in a different context.”
“I’ve got a lot of people that care about me,” Rich continued. “It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this. I would like to apologize to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose I guess. Never really knew it, until now.”
Someone who identified himself as “Captain Bill” urged Rich to work with him to land the plane so no one on the ground would be injured.
“I don’t know man, I don’t know,” he responded. “I don’t want to. I was kind of hoping that would be it, you know?...I wouldn’t know how to land it – I wasn’t really planning on landing it.”
“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” Rich said during one of the radio transmissions. “I just want you to whisper sweet nothings into my ear.”
At one point, Rich seemed to have developed a plan to bring the plane down of his own accord.
“I’m gonna land it, in a safe kind of manner,” he said. “I think I’m gonna try to do a barrel roll, and if that goes good, I’m just gonna nose down and call it a night.”
The air traffic controller tried to divert his attention, but Rich seemed to be fixated on the concept of the “barrel roll.”
“I feel like I need to be – what do you think – like 5,000 feet at least, to be able to pull this barrel roll off?” he asked.
During another transmission, Rich said he felt like one of the plane’s engines was “going out.” The air traffic controller then told him to keep the plane “nice and low,” right over the water.
The last known transmission came at approximately 8:47 p.m., The Washington Post reported.
At about 9:30 p.m., the plane slammed into the sparsely populated Ketron Island, and burst into flames.
On Saturday morning, Chief Eckrote noted that the aircraft was “highly fragmented” as a result of the crash. The plane’s wings were no longer attached, the fuselage was “upside down,” she said.
“As far as I know, it went down on its own,” Chief Eckrote said. She described the terrain where the plane came to rest as a “heavily wooded” area with “thick underbrush.”
In addition to the communications between Rich and air traffic controllers, radar data has also been gathered, she said.
“One of the things were going to be looking for is the flight data recorders, and then also the recovery of the remains,” Chief Eckrote explained. “Those are the two items that are of importance right now.”
The FBI is heading the investigation into the incident, she said.
She said she does not know what may have motivated the employee to steal the aircraft, but noted that the FBI is looking into those questions.
“Until the FBI has an opportunity to get a better…background on the person, find out what motive they had, it’s kind of a little too early to make a determination on what the objective was,” the chief said.
You can listen to several of the audio recordings between rich and air traffic control in the video below: