AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - U.S. authorities filed criminal charges on Wednesday against a JetBlue pilot who screamed over the radio, pounded on the door of the cockpit and was tackled by passengers during a chaotic flight from New York forced to make an emergency landing in Texas.
Flight 191 was diverted to Amarillo, Texas, on Tuesday, following what federal authorities described as erratic behavior by captain Clayton Frederick Osbon, who passengers said was restrained after he pounded on the locked cockpit door.
A U.S. attorney in Texas filed a complaint charging Osbon with interfering with the crew. It is unusual for a commercial airline pilot to be charged in this way, and a U.S. official said he could not recall a similar case in recent years.
Osbon, 49, remains in a guarded facility at a hospital in Amarillo, and U.S. Attorney Sarah Saldana said he faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Osbon was suspended while the FBI investigates the incident, the airline said on Wednesday.
“He has been removed from all active duty and responsibilities pending further investigation,” JetBlue spokeswoman Tamara Young said, declining to comment further on that investigation.
JetBlue, which had said on Tuesday the flight was diverted due to a “medical situation” involving the captain, said Osbon was a 12-year veteran of the airline.
An affidavit by an FBI agent shows that trouble for the flight started before the Airbus A320 took off from New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Osbon was late arriving at the airport, and missed the routine pre-flight crew briefing, agent John Whitworth said in the affidavit.
Whitworth said problems continued as the Airbus A320 was taking off.
“Osbon talked about his church and needed to focus,” Whitworth said in the affidavit. “Osbon began talking about religion, but his statements were not coherent.”
The rest of the flight crew began to get nervous when Osbon told them that “things just don’t matter” and began yelling over the plane’s radio system, telling air traffic controllers to “be quiet,” according to Whitworth’s account in the affidavit. “The First Officer became really worried when Osbon said, ‘We need to take a leap of faith’,” Whitworth said in the document. “Osbon started trying to correlate completely unrelated numbers and he talked about the sins in Las Vegas. At one point, Osbon told the (first officer), ‘We’re not going to Vegas,’ and began giving what was described as a sermon.”
Passengers who were on the plane described a chaotic mid-flight scene in which a man in a JetBlue uniform, apparently locked out of the cockpit, began banging on the door and demanding to be let inside. Passengers subdued him.
“People behind me, a bunch of big guys, started going up there and trying to help, and we found out that the guy banging was actually the pilot, and he was trying to get into the cockpit because the other co-pilot had locked him out,” passenger Grant Heppes told Reuters.
“Everybody seemed pretty nervous,” he said. “Nobody was sure what was going on. Everybody seemed very concerned.”
JetBlue has said that following a medical situation with the captain, another captain who was traveling off-duty entered the flight deck prior to the landing and “took over the duties of the ill crew member once on the ground.”
JetBlue chief executive Dave Barger said there had been no earlier signs of problems with the pilot.
“I’ve known the captain personally for a long period of time, and there’s been no indication of this at all,” Barger told NBC, adding that the pilot was a “consummate professional.”
The incident was the second to involve erratic behavior by a JetBlue crew member since August 2010, when a flight attendant upset after an altercation with a passenger bolted from a plane by deploying and sliding down the inflatable emergency chute.
Lawyers for the flight attendant in that incident, Steven Slater, later told reporters he had acted in part out of frustration with the chaos of air travel and that he was under stress because his mother was suffering from lung cancer.
The incident also came just two weeks after a female flight attendant started ranting about a possible crash over the public address system of an American Airlines plane. She, too, was subdued by passengers and crew as the plane returned to the gate at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb, Susan Heavey, Jim Forsyth; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Greg McCune