Officials ruled out any link to terrorism in the incident, which took place late on Friday, and saw the man holding a conservation with an air traffic controller in which he seemed to apologize for what he was doing.
Video taken by a bystander showed the 76-seat plane making a big, slow loop-the-loop, then flying low over Puget Sound before crashing into Ketron Island, a sparsely-populated area in the northwestern US state of Washington.
The crash sparked a fire in the dense forest. Flames lit up the night as they spread from the burning wreckage to nearby trees. Officials said there were no victims on the ground.
The stolen plane was a twin-engine turboprop Q400 belonging to Horizon Air, its parent company Alaska Airlines said on Twitter.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s office ruled out terrorism.
– Joyrider or suicidal? –
“Most terrorists don’t do loops over the water,” said Sheriff Paul Pastor. “This might have been a joyride gone terribly wrong.”
But Ed Troyer, who also works at the sheriff’s office, described him as “suicidal.”
He was identified as a 29-year-old airline mechanic called Rich or Richard, who lived locally and had acted alone. His full name was not given.
The sheriff’s office said the F-15s arrived minutes after the plane was stolen and kept the aircraft “out of harm’s way and people on the ground safe.”
The fighter jets flew at supersonic speed, triggering a boom first taken to be an explosion, as they raced to intercept the plane.
In a video statement, Horizon Air’s chief operating officer Constance von Muehlen said the plane was taken by one of its employees.
“We believe (the plane) was taken by a single Horizon Air employee and no other passengers or crew were on board,” she said.
The plane was stolen at around 8:00 pm (0300 GMT Saturday) and crashed 90 minutes later, officials said.
President Donald Trump was briefed and the White House praised authorities’ quick response to the crisis.
– ‘Bizarre’ –
John Waldron, who captured the plane’s loop-the-loop on video, told CNN he was out for an evening stroll when he saw two fighter jets following a turboprop plane, initially thinking they were practicing for an air show.
“So I started to capture video, just because I thought it was kind of bizarre,” he said, later realizing that the jets were chasing the plane.
Then the plane “did a complete loop… I couldn’t believe he recovered.”
He estimated that the plane, at its lowest point, was no more than 100 feet (30 meters) above the water.
Then the pilot pulled the plane “pretty much straight up. And kind of at an angle. And almost stalled the aircraft. Somehow he got it leveled back off. And then made his way down toward the island.”
Waldron said he had been prepared to “run and take cover.” He briefly turned away, then turned back and saw the explosion as the plane crashed.
– ‘A broken guy’ –
In a conversation with the control tower, the pilot, who identified himself only as “Rich,” came across as excitable, confused, and even apologetic.
“Congratulations, you did it,” the control tower tells him, according to an audio feed aired on CNN.
“Let’s turn around the air and land it and not hurt anybody on the ground.”
“I don’t know, man,” the pilot answers. “I don’t want to. I was kind of hoping that was going to be it, you know.”
During the conversation, he says he had put some fuel in the plane “to go check out the Olympics” — the Olympic Mountains which lie about 100 miles (160 kilometers) away.
But he later worried he was running low, saying the fuel had burned “quite a bit faster than I expected.”
The control tower then pushes him to land at a nearby military base.
“I wouldn’t want to do that. They probably have anti-aircraft,” he responds.
“This is probably jail time for life, huh?” he later says, according to a recording published by the Seattle Times.
“I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. 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.”