AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - U.S. authorities filed criminal charges on Wednesday against a JetBlue Airways pilot who witnesses said yelled incoherently about religion and the 2001 hijack attacks and pounded on a locked cockpit door before passengers subdued him in a midair uproar.
Flight 191 was diverted to Amarillo, Texas, on Tuesday, following what authorities described as erratic behavior by Capt. Clayton Frederick Osbon, who allegedly ran through the cabin before passengers tackled him in the galley.
A flight attendant suffered bruised ribs, officials said.
The Justice Department 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.
The 12-year JetBlue veteran was suspended while the FBI and aviation authorities investigate the incident, the airline and the government said on Wednesday.
A JetBlue spokeswoman said the company was cooperating fully with authorities and would conduct its own investigation as well.
Dave Barger, chief executive of the New York carrier, said he knows and respects Osbon, who regulators said underwent a routine medical evaluation nearly four months ago and had a clean record.
The harrowing events raised questions about pilot medical qualifications and workplace stress in an industry under chronic financial pressure and more generally in an economy only slowly shaking the grip of severe recession.
An affidavit by an FBI agent shows trouble for the flight started before the Airbus A320 took off from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport enroute to Las Vegas with 141 passengers and crew.
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 plane took 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 copilot grew 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.”
Osbon yelled jumbled comments about “Jesus, September 11th, Iraq, Iran and terrorists” while passengers converged on him, the affidavit said.
An off-duty pilot aboard the plane took Osbon’s place at the controls as the plane made an emergency landing.
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.
The FAA said it was investigating the JetBlue incident. It is not yet known what may have caused the outbursts described in the affidavit, officials said.
As a captain, he would be required to undergo at least two medical exams within the past year to assess his capabilities to fly.
The Federal Aviation Administration said Osbon’s last medical check was in December and there were no prior incidents, accidents or disciplinary actions on his record.
But the physicals required by FAA and conducted annually for most and twice a year in other cases are generally less rigorous than those required by big airlines when first hiring a pilot.
Doctors must rely on self disclosure by a pilot on questionnaires about any mental health issues.
JetBlue said it has a peer-assistance for pilots and added that crewmembers could take “safety time out” should an employee have any issues.
The FAA handles more than 450,000 applications annually for medical certifications, mainly for private flying, agency records show. It would not make a medical official available for an interview.
JetBlue said it was in compliance with FAA regulations on pilot health.
Although the incident aboard the JetBlue flight was a rarity, pilots say their jobs have become more stressful over the years due to carrier financial and other demands.
“Airline pilots are among the most scrutinized professionals there are, way more than doctors. ... We’re constantly under the microscope,” retired U.S. Airways pilot Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III, famous for landing his stricken jet in the Hudson River in 2009, said in a telephone interview.
JetBlue has one of the industry’s more upbeat corporate cultures, which emphasizes premium customer service. Management has good labor relations with its non-union workers who staff mostly newer Airbus jets.
But JetBlue has twice made sensational headlines for lengthy tarmac delays, calling into question its operating decisions in the worst weather.
Joyce Hunter, a former account manager with a major airline who is now an associate professor at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, said pilots and flight attendants should have annual evaluations for stress.
“This is the issue from the vantage point of why we’re seeing these meltdowns,” said Hunter, who wrote a book titled “Anger in the Air.”
Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb, Susan Heavey, Jim Forsyth, John Crawley, Karen Jacobs and Jilian Mincer; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Todd Eastham