Investigators in the US are trying to find how a disturbed airport ground handler, apparently without any flight training, stole a plane and flew it in a series of wild stunt loops for an hour while pursued by fighter jets, before crashing on an island.

The plane was a Q400 turboprop, a popular regional airliner used by airlines around the world (including QantasLink). It’s also known as a Dash-8 and it usually carries 74 passengers.

There were no passengers on the Horizon Air plane that employee Richard Russell, 29 (pictured above),  stole from SeaTac Airport in Seattle, Washington, on Friday night. The only person on it appears to have been Russell. Horizon Air is a Seattle-based regional airline. Horizon and its sister carrier Alaska Airlines are subsidiaries of Alaska Air Group and all Horizon-operated scheduled flights are marketed and sold by Alaska Airlines.

Russell commandeered the empty plane and took off into the sunset, performing loops and other manoeuvres over Puget Sound.

The incident appears to have no links to terrorism, though investigations continue. Russell was killed in the crash and nobody else was hurt.

Questions are being asked about Russell’s mental state. He did not hold a pilot’s licence, he was concerned about running out of fuel during his flight, and he engaged ground control in tense conversations that indicated he was suicidal. Russell said he was “just a broken guy” as controllers tried to get him divert the 76-seat Bombardier Q400 over the sea to avoid populated areas.

Friends and relatives have said Russell’s actions were totally out of character, describing Russell as a kind and loving man who was respected and valued. He was well travelled and the light-hearted, short (99-second) video below, which he posted on YouTube last year, seems to be the product of someone who enjoyed life.

The aircraft crashed into forested Ketron Island about an hour after takeoff, starting an intense fire there.

Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor told the Washington Post it was a “joy ride gone terribly wrong.”

Two US Air Force F-15 fighter jets, scrambled from their base in Portland, Oregon, took to the air within minutes of the theft, hitting supersonic speeds to intercept the flyaway Q400. They did not fire on the aircraft but flew close enough to be seen. President Trump was briefed on the incident as it unfolded, reportedly.

Russell told controllers from the cockpit: “I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this. I would like to apologise to each and every one of them. Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess. Never really knew it until now.”

Any readers seeking support and/or information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 or Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800.

Written by Peter Needham