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JetBlue pilot charged with interfering with flight crew

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed March 28, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: "Pretty much, their career is done," psychiatrist says about psychotic episodes among pilots
  • "Initially, he did not exhibit any bizarre behavior," FBI agent's affidavit says
  • Clayton Osbon talked about his church and needing to "focus," affidavit says
  • If convicted, pilot faces a maximum 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine

(CNN) -- A JetBlue pilot has been charged with interfering with a flight crew after his midair behavioral meltdown led to an emergency landing.

The federal criminal complaint reveals details of the incident in which Clayton Osbon, 49, displayed what passengers and fellow crew members described as erratic, bizarre and disturbing behavior.

Osbon has been suspended pending an investigation and is receiving medical treatment, the airline said Wednesday.

If convicted, Osbon would face a maximum 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The U.S. Attorney's office has 30 days to present the matter to a grand jury for indictment.

Read the criminal complaint

In the two-page affidavit in support of an arrest warrant, FBI Special Agent John Whitworth said Osbon missed the crew briefing for Flight 191, which departed at 7:28 a.m. Tuesday from New York's Kennedy International Airport en route to Las Vegas.

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"Initially, he did not exhibit any bizarre behavior," Whitworth said in the affidavit, which describes behavior that grew more erratic as the flight continued.

The affidavit details the trip:

As the plane was taking off, Osbon "said something to the FO (first officer) about being evaluated by someone," but the first officer was not sure what Osbon meant.

Osbon talked about his church and needing to "focus," then asked the first officer to take over the controls and the radio. Osbon said, "Things just don't matter," talked about sins in Las Vegas, and at one point said, "We're not going to Vegas."

About 3½ hours into the planned five-hour flight, the pilot left the cockpit to use the lavatory, but he failed to follow security protocol, alarming the crew. He then banged on the lavatory door and told the female passenger inside that he needed to go to the bathroom.

By that time, the first officer had summoned another JetBlue pilot who had been traveling as a passenger to enter the cockpit and the two locked themselves inside.

From the cabin, Osbon tried to enter his security code to gain access to the cockpit "and he banged on the door hard enough that the FO thought he was coming through the door."

But the door held and, over the PA, the first officer ordered passengers to restrain Osbon. Several did just that, subduing the pilot in the forward galley. During the melee, a flight attendant suffered bruised ribs.

A passenger said Osbon said, "Pray f***ing now for Jesus Christ" and mumbled about Jesus, September 11, Iraq, Iran and terrorists.

How are flight crews screened?

"The pilot ran to the cockpit door, began banging on it and said something to the effect of, 'We've gotta pull the throttle back. We've gotta get this plane down,'" said passenger Laurie Dhue, a former CNN anchor.

"At that point, the two flight attendants tried to subdue him, and then -- seemingly out of nowhere -- about six or seven large guys stormed to the front of the plane and wrestled the captain of the plane down to the ground and had him subdued in a matter of moments," she said. "It was really like something out of a movie."

Amateur video of the incident showed a commotion as men moved through the aisle. A voice, purportedly that of the pilot, can be heard.

"Oh my God. I'm so distraught!" he shouts. "We've got Israel, we've got Iraq, we've got Israel, we've got Iraq! We've got to get down!"

Law enforcement met the aircraft, cuffed the pilot and took him off the plane.

If that description of Osbon's behavior is correct, "this guy was clearly psychotic," said Dr. William Sledge, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine who has not treated Osbon. "That has all the earmarks of an acute psychotic episode. I wouldn't hesitate to make that statement."

Psychosis is an automatic disqualification from flying, said Sledge, who is himself a pilot, was a flight surgeon at the School of Aerospace Medicine and has consulted for the Federal Aviation Administration, the Airline Pilots Association and a number of airlines.

Cases of psychosis among pilots are unusual, but not rare, and can be career-ending, he said.

"Pretty much, their career is done, most of them," he said. "It's a lifetime disqualification for obvious reasons ... you have to be able to trust each other and you have to be able to trust that the airman is going to be able to perform in a reasonable way."

Passenger Tony Antolino praised the co-pilot. "He really, I think, is the hero here because he had the sense to recognize that something was going horribly wrong, and he was able to persuade the pilot out of the cockpit," he said.

The first officer declared an emergency and the plane landed at about 11 a.m. in Amarillo, Texas. Passengers restraining Osbon continued to do so during the landing.

Osbon, who has worked as a JetBlue pilot for 12 years, has been taken off active duty with pay, said airline spokeswoman Tamara Young.

CEO Dave Barger said Osbon had always been a "consummate professional."

"What happened at altitude is we had a medical situation," Barger told NBC News. "It became a security situation."

Barger said the captain was in custody of the FBI. Citing privacy concerns, JetBlue would not divulge details about his treatment.

Osbon has not made a public statement.

The Twitter page for a Clayton F. Osbon describes him as "JetBlue Flight Standards Captain" for the Airbus A320, as well as a leadership coach. Tuesday's Flight 191 from New York to Las Vegas was on an Airbus A320.

Both the Twitter and LinkedIn pages in Osbon's name describe him as a director of Body By Vi. The LinkedIn page says the company helps "people to a better life" through health and financial prosperity.

A Facebook page for a Clayton Osbon says he is married and lives in Savannah, Georgia.

The blog Writer Killing Darlings carries a profile of Osbon, which was published last year in the magazine Richmond Hill Reflections. "Clayton lives with his wife of six years, Connye, and enough animals to make a lint-brush essential," the story says.

Osbon "wants to be a motivational speaker down the road," the story says.

"It starts with a greater enhanced knowledge of one's being... you know, I'd like to think the world is more than just getting up in the morning, making a cup of coffee, going to work, coming home, kissing your wife good-night and going to bed," it quotes him as saying.

"I was surprised, to say the least," Christine Lucas, who wrote the profile, said about her reaction when she heard the news Tuesday. She said she had met with the pilot three times in preparing to write the story and that he gave no indication that anything was amiss. "He was fantastic, and I believe he probably still is. I'm as eager as everybody else to figure out what happened. But he was a gregarious guy, he was confident and he seemed happy. I can't say that anything led me to think that something like this would happen."

CNN's Tom Watkins, Josh Levs, Mike Ahlers, Aaron Cooper, Susan Candiotti, Jim Barnett and Carma Hassan contributed to this report.

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