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Frankfurt crash threat ends safely

The plane passes the headquarters of the Hesse state bank.

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FRANKFURT, Germany (CNN) -- Police arrested a man when he landed at Frankfurt airport on Sunday after he took a small plane at gunpoint and threatened to crash it into the European Central Bank skyscraper.

The man, who was alone in the plane, told German television network NTV he wanted to draw attention to his "big idol" Judith Resnik, a U.S. astronaut who died in the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Before landing, he spoke with Resnik's brother.

Police Chief Harald Weiss-Bollandt called him "a 31-year-old man from Darmstadt who evidently suffers from a psychological disturbance."

NTV, a CNN sister network, identified him as Franz-Stefan Strambach, who is listed as the organiser of a Web site devoted to Judith Resnik.

The man seized the single-engine plane at 2:55 p.m. (8:55 a.m. ET) in Babenhausen, about 50 kilometres (31 miles) southeast of Frankfurt, police said.

The plane circled downtown Frankfurt for more than an hour, at times coming close to skyscrapers and flying low to the ground, as authorities spoke to the pilot from the control tower at Frankfurt International Airport to persuade him to land.

He demanded to speak with NTV, and authorities put him in contact with the network. He complained that Resnik never received the recognition she deserved, "probably because she was the first Jewish astronaut," he said.

Resnik died when Challenger exploded in 1986.

The man also told authorities he wanted speak with Charles Resnik, the astronaut's brother, and they got him on the line.

Resnik is founding director and vice chairman of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education in Alexandria, Virginia, an organisation developed by the families of the Challenger crew to continue the education mission of the Challenger. He is also a physician and radiology professor at the University of Maryland.

Resnik told CNN he would not give details of his conversation with the man, calling it a "private matter."

Resnik said he did not know him and did not know whether his sister knew him. The conversation lasted "several minutes" and the man spoke English, Resnik said.

Resnik encouraged the man to land the plane safely and never felt personally threatened during the conversation, he said.

Resnik would not say whether the man told him why he wanted to speak with him. "I can't say that I understand any of this," he said.

Officials could not risk shooting at the plane as it flew around densely populated Frankfurt.

The pilot threatened to crash into the Eurotower building, home of the European Central Bank.

A police helicopter kept the plane under surveillance and German fighters circled nearby but did not appear to try to intercept it.

During the incident, no flights landed or took off at the airport, one of the world's busiest, officials said.

Police evacuated some high-rise buildings, although they were mostly empty on Sunday and businesses were closed. Authorities ordered people away from a few bridges and cordoned off some pedestrian areas.

The building the man threatened to fly into is the headquarters for the euro, the European currency.

"A plane of this type would have caused only minimal damage to the skyscraper," said Reinhard Ries, Frankfurt fire chief. The bigger concern was that the pilot would try to land on a crowded street, he said.

About 5 p.m. (11 a.m. ET), the plane veered away from downtown Frankfurt and headed to the airport where it landed safely about 10 minutes later, officials said. The man demanded that a TV crew be at the airport, they said.

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