SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A man believed to be an airline employee stole an empty plane last night from Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle. Planes in the Seattle area were temporarily grounded. Here's a brief excerpt of that man speaking with an air traffic controller.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're just trying to find a place for you to land safely.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, not quite ready to bring it down just yet. But holy smokes, I got to stop looking at the fuel because it's going down quick.
SIMON: The plane flew erratically until it did crash on a small island in Puget Sound. Here to tell us more is Austin Jenkins of the Northwest News Network. Austin, thanks for being with us.
AUSTIN JENKINS: Good morning, Scott.
SIMON: How do we explain what happened here?
JENKINS: Well, this all started about 8 o'clock Pacific Time last night when this man, who, as you said, was believed to be an airline employee, stole a Horizon Airlines Q400 turboprop plane. This is a small, 80-passenger aircraft used for regional hops. He managed to take off from Sea-Tac Airport - a major airport. And he stayed airborne for about the next 60 to 90 minutes. During this time, North American Aerospace Defense Command, also known as NORAD, launched those two F-15 fighter jets from Portland, Ore., to intercept the plane. As you heard, the man was in contact with air traffic control. They were trying to get him to land. And then just after 9 o'clock local time, the plane crashed on that small island, caught fire. NORAD says the F-15s did not fire upon the aircraft. And the man is presumed dead.
SIMON: What do we know about him?
JENKINS: Not much. Alaska Airlines, the parent airline to Horizon Air, put out a statement saying it believes this man was a ground service agent employed by Horizon. They say that he took the plane from a maintenance position, which means that this was not a plane scheduled last night for passenger service. We don't know what motivated him to take the plane and do this. But during those communications with air traffic control, he did describe himself - and I'm quoting here - as "a broken guy with a few screws loose." Those are his words.
SIMON: Could he fly a plane?
JENKINS: Well, he knew enough to get the plane started, taxi it and get it airborne. We don't know if he had experience as a pilot. You heard in that audio with air traffic control that he was concerned about how fast he was burning fuel, so he seemed unfamiliar with that. But he also apparently did some stunts while he was flying. I've seen Facebook video that appears to show him doing - going upside down in this plane. As he does that, it appears he's about to crash into the water. And at the last minute, he pulls out of that dive and keeps flying. So he clearly had some knowledge of how to control a plane. Whether he had ever flown a plane before, we just don't know.
SIMON: Or landed a plane.
JENKINS: Or landed a plane.
SIMON: Anyone else hurt when he crashed?
JENKINS: It appears not. The airline has said there were no passengers onboard. It was just this man. And where the plane went down, it was in a forested area on this island where it didn't look like there were any homes in the immediate vicinity.
SIMON: You circled the island last night - right? - in a boat?
JENKINS: Yeah, by boat. This is a very small island. It's steep and hilly. There's fewer than two dozen residents who live there. Most of the homes seem to be on the north end of the island. This plane went down on the south end. There was smoke. We saw flames on the hillside, police boats circling, helicopters overhead. And I'll just mention it has been very hot and dry here. The fire danger is extreme. But the fire from the crash did not spread far.
SIMON: Well, there certainly are going to be concerns about somebody being able to steal a plane, particularly in these days of such concerns about security. Austin Jenkins of the Northwest News Network, thanks so much for being with us.
JENKINS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.