LAS VEGAS — A JetBlue captain who was wrestled to the floor by passengers after yelling about a bomb and urging people to pray during a Las Vegas-bound flight has been suspended, the airline said Wednesday.
Clayton Osbon has been taken off active duty pending a review of Tuesday’s incident, JetBlue Airways spokeswoman Allison Steinberg said. A co-pilot shut him out of the cockpit and took command of the flight from New York.
Passengers first noticed something was wrong when Osbon stormed out of the cockpit and tried to force his way into an occupied bathroom. His co-workers tried to calm him as he became more jittery, coaxing him to the back of the plane while making sure that he didn’t return to the controls.
Then he sprinted up the cabin’s aisle, ranting about a bomb, screaming “They’re going to take us down!”
“Nobody knew what to do because he is the captain of the plane,” said passenger Don Davis. “You’re not just going to jump up and attack the captain.”
But four men did just that, using seat belt extenders and zip tie handcuffs to restrain and pin Osbon to the floor for more than 20 minutes while the co-pilot and an off-duty pilot who was aboard landed the plane in Amarillo, Texas.
The company’s CEO and president Dave Barger told NBC’s “Today” show that Osbon is a “consummate professional” whom he has personally known for years. Osbon has been a pilot for JetBlue since 2000.
There is nothing in the captain’s record to indicate he would be a risk on a flight, Barger said Wednesday.
It was not clear if Osbon would face any criminal or civil charges.
“Clearly, he had an emotional or mental type of breakdown,” said Tony Antolino, a security executive who tackled the pilot.
“He became almost delusional,” Antolino said after arriving in Las Vegas some six hours behind schedule.
Josh Redick, who was sitting near the middle of the plane, said the captain seemed “irate” and was “spouting off about Afghanistan and souls and al-Qaida.”
Elton Stafford, who lives across the street from Osbon in Georgia, said he was shocked at the outburst.
“Clayton’s a great guy. Loves to have a good time, loves the outdoors. He just loves people,” Stafford said late Tuesday. “They’re the kind of neighbours that everybody wants.”
The airline described the incident as a “medical situation.” Airline officials said the captain was taken to a hospital.
The outburst came weeks after an American Airlines flight attendant was taken off a plane for rambling about 9-11 and her fears the plane would crash. John Cox, an aviation safety consultant and former airline pilot, said he could recall only two or three cases in 40 years where a commercial pilot had become mentally incapacitated during a flight.
Gabriel Schonzeit, who was sitting in the third row, said the captain said there could be a bomb on board.
“He started screaming about al-Qaida and possibly a bomb on the plane and Iraq and Iran and about how we were all going down,” Schonzeit told the Amarillo Globe-News.
“A group of us just jumped up instinctually and grabbed him and put him to the ground,” Antolino said.
The customers and crew “just did a great job,” JetBlue’s Barger said.
The FBI was co-ordinating an investigation with the airport police, Amarillo police, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Safety Administration, said agency spokeswoman Lydia Maese in Dallas. She declined to comment on arrests.
Airlines and the FAA strongly encourage pilots to assert themselves if they think safety is being jeopardized, even if it means contradicting a captain’s orders, Cox said. Aviation safety experts have studied several cases where first officers deferred to more experienced captains with tragic results.
Unruly pilots and crew have disrupted flights in the past.
In 2008, an Air Canada co-pilot was forcibly removed from a Toronto-to-London flight, restrained and sedated after having a mental breakdown.
The FAA is likely to review Osbon’s medical certificate — essentially a seal of approval that the pilot is healthy. All pilots working for scheduled airlines must have a first-class medical certificate. The certificates must be renewed every six months to a year, depending on the pilot’s age. To receive the certificate, the pilot must receive a physical examination by an FAA-designated medical examiner that includes questions about pilot’s psychological condition. Pilots are required to disclose all physical and psychological conditions and medications.
Charlie Restivo, who was heading to the Las Vegas security conference and sat in the plane’s fourth row, said he thought it was clear that the pilot had suffered a medical episode.
“I don’t think when he got up this morning that that’s what he was intending to do,” he said. “Unfortunately, I just think it happened to him.”
Bomkamp reported from New York. Joan Lowy in Washington, D.C., and Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Texas, contributed to this report