The rogue pilot, 29, said to be a mechanic and who has not yet been named, performed acrobatics before crashing in a fireball on the island off the US coast.
Horrified witnesses on the ground in Seattle said they saw two F-15 fighters attempt to intercept the 76-seater Horizon Air Q400 and “steer” it away from highly-populated areas.
As air traffic control tried to coax the man to land safely, he told them he had learned to fly by playing video games and said he should get “jail time for life”.
The military jets, scrambled from a US Air Force base in Portland, were on the scene within minutes to deal with what was initially feared to be a terrorist hijacking.
While airborne, however, the rogue flier radioed air traffic personnel at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which was immediately closed as the drama unfolded on Friday night.
He told controllers – who referred to him by the names “Rich” and “Richard”– that he was “just a broken guy”.
Attempts to talk him down failed and he radioed back: “I’ve got a lot of people that care about me. It’s going to disappoint them to hear I did this… Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose, I guess.”
In another exchange, one controller tried to guide him towards a nearby runway at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, but he refused to steer towards the USAF airfield, replying: “Oh man, those people will rough me up if I try to land there.”
This man did something foolish and may well have paid with his life
Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor
His final words were: “This is jail time for life, huh? I would hope it is for a guy like me.” At one point he told the air traffic controllers: “It’s a blast. I’ve played video games before so I know what I’m doing a little bit.”
In another exchange, as the controller tried to persuade him to land the plane, the rogue pilot said: “Yeah, not quite ready to bring it down just yet, but holy smokes I need to stop looking at the fuel because it’s going down quick.”
The radio went dead as the plane nose-dived towards tiny Ketron Island in the Puget Sound, about 25 miles off America’s north-west coast. Police said there was “virtually zero chance” he survived the impact and explosion, although a search and rescue team was immediately dispatched.
Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor said: “This man did something foolish and may well have paid with his life.”
He also described the emergency as “a joyride gone terribly wrong”. He confirmed the rogue pilot was a 29-year-old ground service agent employed by Horizon Air who lived locally. His lack of experience as a pilot was the “likely reason” he was unable to land safely despite being able to perform aerial tricks.