The man who hijacked an Alaska Airlines plane in Seattle on Friday night taking it for a joyride before crashing on an island in a ball of flames was a married 29-year-old Horizon Air employee who dreamed of joining the military.
The ground service agent, referred to as ‘Rich’ and ‘Richard’ by air traffic controllers, was born in Key West, Florida and moved to Alaska as a child.
He met his wife in Oregon in 2010 while they were in school and married one year later. The newlyweds then opened a bakery together, which eventually shut down. They moved to Seattle in 2015.
While living in Seattle, Rich started working for Horizon Airlines with the hopes of working in a management position. He also had dreams of becoming an officer in the military.
His main role as a ground service agent at the airport was to unload bags. He was not permitted to fly planes.
Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said on Saturday morning that president Trump was briefed on the incident and was monitoring the situation. She also praised the response effort for its ‘swift action’ and ensuring public safety.
During the hijacking Friday night at Seattle-Tacoma Airport, Rich joked with air traffic controllers for more than 20 minutes before crashing the plane into an island 25 miles away.
The 29-year-old took off in the 76-seater Horizon Air turboprop Q400 about 8pm after he took it from a maintenance area.
At one point, Rich asked air traffic controllers: ‘Hey do you think if I land this successfully Alaska will give me a job as a pilot?’
The air traffic controller, trying to keep him on side, replied ‘you know, I think they would give you a job doing anything if you could pull this off’, to which Rich replied: ‘Yeah right! Nah, I’m a white guy.’
Two F-15 fighter jets scrambled from Portland ‘minutes’ after the plane took off to intercept it, according to Pierce County Sheriff’s Office.
Witnesses described seeing the aircraft performing barrel rolls and loop-the-loops as the military planes directed it away from highly-populated areas and towards Ketron Island, where it crashed into a ball of flame.
While still in the air, the pilot was heard telling traffic controllers he was ‘just a broken guy’ before telling them he was preparing for ‘jail time for life’.
Police blamed ‘doing stunts in the air and a lack of flying skills’ for the crash.
Air traffic controllers begged Rich to land the plane and tried to give him directions to a runway where he could put the plane down in one piece.
‘This is probably jail time for life, huh? I would hope it is for a guy like me,’ he responded.
Sheriff Paul Pastor confirmed the incident was ‘not terrorist related’ and described it as ‘a joyride gone terribly wrong’. He said the man ‘did something foolish and may well have paid with his life’.
In a statement just before midnight, Alaska Airlines said a ground service agent took an out-of-service plane without clearance. Part of a ground service agents job is to direct and de-ice planes, as well as managing luggage.
The aircraft was not scheduled for passenger flights, they added.
During the air traffic controllers’ talk with Rich, they tried unsuccessfully to get him to land the plane.
‘There is the runway just off your right side in about a mile, do you see that?’ the traffic controller said.
‘Oh those guys will try to rough me up if I try land there…,’ Rich replied. ‘I think I might mess something up there too. I wouldn’t want to do that. Oh they probably have got anti-aircraft.’
‘They don’t have any of that stuff, we are just trying to find you a place to land safely,’ the traffic controller responded.
Rich told the air traffic controller he wasn’t ‘quite ready’ to bring the plane down.
‘But holy smokes I need to stop looking at the fuel ‘cos it’s going down quick,’ he added.
‘OK, Rich, if you could, could you start a left-hand turn and we’ll take you down to the south-east,’ the traffic controller said.
‘This is probably jail time for life, huh?’ Rich replied. ‘I would hope it is for a guy like me.’
Ketron Island, where the plane went down, is a densely wooded area home to 24 people, according to the 2000 census. None of the island’s residents were thought to have been harmed.
The terrifying incident has left many questioning the airport’s security and how an unqualified worker was given access to the plane. It is also unclear how he was able to take off unhindered.
Royal King told The Seattle Times he was photographing a wedding when he saw the low-flying turboprop being chased by to F-15s. He said he didn’t see the crash but saw smoke.
‘It was unfathomable, it was something out of a movie,’ he told the newspaper. ‘The smoke lingered. You could still hear the F-15s, which were flying low.’
The airport was shut down for about an hour and a half and flights were suspended as officials dealt with the hijacked plane. Planes already on the runway were ordered to stay put.
A Twitter user named ‘Victoria’ wrote that she was sitting in a plane on the runway awaiting more news from the pilot, who had explained another aircraft had been hijacked. Victoria tweeted about 20 minutes later that her plane was taxiing off the runway.
Images from the airport terminal showed hundreds of Air Alaska Airlines passengers queuing with their baggage and awaiting information.
Some dude stole a plane from #Seatac (Allegedly), did a loop-the-loop, ALMOST crashed into #ChambersBay, then crossed in front of our party, chased by fighter jets and subsequently crashed. Weird times. pic.twitter.com/Ra4LcIhwfU
Seattle-Tacoma (Sea-Tac) airport said in a statement: ‘An airline employee conducted an unauthorized takeoff without passengers at Sea-Tac; aircraft has crashed in south Puget Sound. Normal operations at Sea-Tac Airport have resumed.’
Alaska Airlines said: ‘We are aware of an incident involving an unauthorized take-off of a Horizon Air Q400. We believe there are no passengers on board. More information as we learn more.’
‘This is not a terrorist incident. Confirmed info… this is a single suicide male. We know who he is. No others involved,’ the Pierce County Sheriff said.
The Federal Aviation Administration said: ‘We can’t confirm anything at this time. We’re trying to get accurate information about what is actually going on. Without confirming anything, a stolen aircraft would be a security issue.
‘The FAA is not a security agency, although we work closely with other government agencies on security issues.’
The incident is now being investigated by the FBI and military. It is thought to be the first fatal incident in the US involving a commercial airliner since 9/11.
Horizon Air is part of Alaska Air Group and flies shorter routes throughout the U.S. West.
Sea-Tac is the ninth busiest airport in the US, and flew 46.9 million passengers and more than 425,800 metric tons of air cargo in 2017.