Sound Stories. Sound Voices.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
You are on the KUOW archive site. Click here to go to our current site.

The haunting conversation between the plane thief and the air traffic controller

A screenshot of the Bombardier Q400 turbojet before crashing from a video by Skylar Jacobson.
Skylar Jacobson via KOMO twitter
A screenshot of the Bombardier Q400 turbojet before crashing from a video by Skylar Jacobson.

“Hope this isn’t going to ruin your day.”

The words were soft as they bounced into the air traffic control live feed. The man who spoke them was a 29-year-old grounds crew worker who worked for Horizon Air. He identified himself as Rich, and he had just taken a Bombardier Q400 turboprop from Sea-Tac Airport on a busy Friday night.

His tone was lighthearted, like a friend having a fun conversation — surprising for someone who understood he might die within the hour. 

Related: Rogue plane takes off from Sea-Tac; crashes on remote island

“I 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.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please contact one of these resources: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-8255 Hotline available 24/7. Online chat also available. Crisis Text Line741741 Text from anywhere in the U.S. with a trained crisis counselor. Available 24/7. Forefront Suicide Prevention (UW) Information, training, and resources. Not a crisis line.

The air traffic controller who would talk to him for the rest of the doomed flight was measured and kind. The air traffic control live feed is fast, almost incomprehensible as different voices deliver numbers at an auctioneer’s pace. But with Rich, the air traffic controller took his time.

He suggested that Rich go to Joint Base Lewis-McChord. No, Rich said. He said he would be roughed up over the military base.

Rich said he wanted to see the sites – the Olympic Mountains and Mount Rainier. The sun was setting and the sky was pink, a magical time of year in Washington state. 

“I just want to keep talking to you,” the air traffic controller said. “If you keep going to the Olympic Mountains, we won’t be able to hear you.”

He listened as Rich spoke.

“I’m just a broken guy just a few screws loose,” Rich said. “Never knew it until now.”

And then Rich paused. “Man, have you ever been to the Olympics? These guys are gorgeous, holy smokes!”

“Yeah, I have been out there,” the air traffic controller said. “It’s always a nice drive.”

Throughout, the air traffic controller would respond, then steer Rich back to the flight path.

“I haven’t done much hiking over there, but if you could start a left turn,” he said. “I know you’re getting a good view there, but if you go too much farther in that direction, I won’t be able to hear you anymore.”

The air traffic controller brought in two pilots to advise Rich on how to handle the plane.

“Hey, pilot guy,” Rich said. “Can this thing can do a back flip, do you think?”

And then: “I think I’m gonna land it. In a safe kind of manner. What should I do, a barrel roll? And if that goes good, go nose down and call it a night.”

Rich said he felt light-headed and dizzy. The sights went by so quickly, he said.

“I was thinking I would have this moment of serenity, you know, take in all the sights,” he said. “There’s a lot of pretty stuff, but I think they’re prettier in a different context.”

As the air traffic controller asked for details, it became clear that he may be steering the plane to a remote area, possibly a place for the Bombardier to crash. 

Rich told him he was at 2,500 feet.

“Do you have an idea of how much fuel you have left?” the air traffic controller asked.

“Aw man, not enough! Not enough to get by.”

Rich remained fixed on the barrel roll. “Gonna do this barrel roll real quick,” he said.

“Well, no need to do that,” the air traffic controller said. “If you could just start a turn to the right, and then I’ll tell you when to stop turning, and then keep it level from there.”

The live stream indicates that Rich did as he was told.

“I wouldn’t mind just shooting the shit with you guys, but it’s all business, you know,” he said, sounding disappointed by the rapid fire radio talk that didn't include him. The other air traffic controllers were working to land all other planes. 

And then back to the barrel roll: “I feel like I need to be, what do you think, like 5,000 feet at least to pull this barrel roll off?”

The air traffic controller remained firm, but even: “If you could, I’d say you’re still turning to the right, wanna start making a turn back to the left? Start another right hand turn.”

Rich pushed back.

“All right, dammit, I don’t know man, I don’t want to,” he said. “I was hoping that would be it. You know. I feel like one of my engines is going out, you know.”

The air traffic controller delivered the last, ominous lines from the live feed, before the crash: “If you could, keep the plane right over the water, keep the aircraft nice and low.”