Samantha Bomkamp and Thomas J. Sheeran
SALEM, OHIO: Friends and relatives of the co-pilot of JetBlue Airways Flight 191 say he doesn’t want to be considered a hero — but that’s exactly what many are calling him.
Pilots train for a whole range of in-flight mishaps including sick passengers, emergency landings and terrorist attacks. But Jason Dowd faced the rarest of scenarios: deciding whether to lock his incapacitated captain out of the cockpit and call for an emergency landing after Clayton Osbon became unruly and had to be subdued by passengers.
Dowd is staying out of the public eye for now, but a wave of overnight fame — much like ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ Capt. Chesley Sullenberger — likely awaits. JetBlue says the decision on whether to go public is up to him, but the airline is not commenting more out of respect for his privacy. Public relations experts say there are big pros and cons to going public, like what “Sully” and his co-captain Jeff Skiles experienced in the aftermath of their emergency landing in the Hudson River.
“For some folks it’s a lot to deal with — especially all at once,” said Dr. Ron Bishop, a professor of culture and communication at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “It seems given all the outlets and different means in which we communicate, the attention paid to a person in that situation is ramped up considerably.”
According to court documents, Osbon became increasingly incoherent on board the Las Vegas-bound flight Tuesday, and Dowd was “really worried” when Osbon told him “we need to take a leap of faith.” Concerned about Osbon’s behavior, Dowd suggested they invite an off-duty JetBlue captain who was flying as a passenger to come into the cockpit, but instead, Osbon left the cockpit and later sprinted down the cabin yelling jumbled remarks about Sept. 11 and Iran, documents and witnesses say.
The off-duty captain then joined Dowd, and from inside the locked cockpit, which Osbon tried to re-enter by banging on the door, the co-pilot gave an order through the intercom to restrain Osbon, according to the documents, which don’t mention Dowd by name. Passengers wrestled Osbon to the ground, and Dowd diverted the flight from New York to Amarillo, Texas. No one onboard was seriously injured.
Federal prosecutors have charged Osbon, 49, with interfering with a flight crew and he is under medical evaluation at an Amarillo hospital.
Dowd doesn’t consider himself a hero, relatives said Thursday. But his actions on board Tuesday’s flight were not a surprise to friends and family.
“I’m glad for those people he was the co-pilot that day,” said Dowd’s mother-in-law, Ruth Ann Kostal. Dowd, who lives in his hometown of Salem, Ohio, with his wife and their two young children, hasn’t been able to come home yet because he’s still being interviewed by federal authorities in New York, Kostal said. He has made no public comments about Tuesday’s flight.
“I can see him being a hero. It does not surprise me one bit that he acted so professionally,” said Patty Eaton, a secretary at the church Dowd’s family attends.
Passengers, including those who helped restrain Osbon, also credit Dowd for landing their plane safely. David Gonzalez, a 50-year-old former New York corrections office from Tannersville, Pa., who helped tackle Osbon, said the co-pilot is the “real hero” for getting the captain out of the cockpit and locking the door so he couldn’t get back in.
“It’s because of his actions that we’re here,” Gonzalez said of Dowd.
David E. Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision, LLC, a leading public relations agency, said if Dowd comes forward, it would likely give JetBlue a needed public relations boost.
“JetBlue needs someone to really step to the forefront. It’s the second person there that’s gone berserk they need to show that they’ve got good and heroic employees,” he said.
In 2010, JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater pulled the emergency chute on a flight after it landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport. He went on the public-address system, swore at a passenger, grabbed a beer and slid down onto the tarmac. He was sentenced to probation, counseling and substance abuse treatment for attempted criminal mischief.
As much as JetBlue likely wants to put Slater’s and Osbon’s outbursts behind them, Johnson said there’s another reason why Dowd may not want to go public.
“He’s probably just very low key and just thinks he did what he was supposed to do,” Johnson said.
Sullenberger talked extensively about his unlikely celebrity status after crash landing in the Hudson in 2009. He later wrote a book, took part in the making of a documentary and spoke out on issues affecting pilots, including pensions and flight hour regulations. But the shine of the public eye was overwhelming at times, and he equated it to having a fire hose pointed at him.
A spokeswoman for Sullenberger said he declined to comment on this story. His co-pilot Jeff Giles couldn’t be reached for comment. Both gave up their flying careers after the accident.
For Dowd, fame could bring opportunities, but Johnson said the pros have to be weighed with the burden of constant attention.
“It will bring some attention to him when he’d rather have it just fade away,” Johnson said. “But Sully was your American hero. Sully was apple pie. And this guy might be as well.”
Sheeran reported from Salem; Bomkamp from New York. Associated Press writers John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio; and Oskar Garcia in Las Vegas; and researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.