PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — An airline employee’s unauthorized takeoff from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport before dying in a crash will likely prompt a major review of already tightly controlled industry security measures, experts said Saturday.
“This is going to be a major learning event for the industry,” CNN aviation analyst Justin Green said. “This is a really big deal.”
The biggest question: How did a ground service agent — whose job includes directing planes for takeoff and gate approaches as well as baggage handling and de-icing — manage to steal a 76-seat Horizon Air turboprop and fly it for nearly an hour Friday night with military jets in pursuit before plunging into a wooded island?
“If this pilot, instead of doing what he ended up doing, had wanted to crash the airplane into downtown Seattle, the fighter (jets) were not going to be able to stop him; air traffic control was not going to stop him,” Green said. “This has to be a major, major issue.”
The FBI’s Seattle office said the plane’s theft and crash weren’t considered terrorism.
Still, the episode appears to expose alarming gaps in airport security in the post-9/11 era, according to experts.
No one else was believed to be on the plane, authorities said. The 29-year-old airline employee died in the crash.
“There is a protocol to not allow anyone singularly to get onboard an aircraft,” CNN safety analyst David Soucie said. “If you’re going to access the aircraft … you make sure that you check with someone else, and that someone else (will confirm) that … you have the right authority to get onto that aircraft.
“Every airport in the country is going to be looking” at whether current protocols need to be changed, Soucie said.
The plane took off without authorization around 8 p.m. PT, with the employee — who was not a pilot — at the controls, according to airport officials.
Video from a witness on the ground shows the plane at one point doing a loop, putting the aircraft upside-down, then pulling up just feet above a body of water.
In audio recordings posted on Broadcastify, the man can be heard talking to air traffic controllers as they try to guide him to land the plane.
At one point, he apologizes and says he is a “broken guy” with “a few screws loose.”
“I’ve got a lot of people that care about me, and it’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this,” he said. “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.”
Within minutes of the plane’s takeoff, the military scrambled two armed F-15 jets from Oregon to follow it, according to local and airline authorities and two sources with knowledge of the situation. They pursued the aircraft before it went down on Ketron Island, between Tacoma and Olympia.
It wasn’t clear what training, if any, the man had as a pilot.
A ground service agent’s responsibilities don’t involve touching planes’ controls, CNN aviation analyst Mary Schiavo said. But the plane made turns and aerobatic maneuvers that suggested some skill.
“In this plane, he certainly knew how to retract the landing gear; he coordinated both engines, powered them up to get a coordinated takeoff,” she said. “A couple of the turns, it looked like what we call in basic flight training a ‘coordinated turn,’ meaning that he not only used the yoke … but you also coordinate with the rudders and you do the turns.”
She added, “Yeah, he knew how to fly. But … the air traffic controller had to tell him how to set what they call the ‘bugs’ — they’re just little sort of little levers, or little notches on your indicator for your heading … which is kind of basic.
“So, (he) had some knowledge but clearly wasn’t a commercial pilot.”
The plane was taken from a maintenance position and was not scheduled for a passenger flight, said Gary Beck, Horizon Air’s president and chief executive officer.