Betsy Blaney and Oskar Garcia
LAS VEGAS: Passengers onboard a JetBlue flight bound for Las Vegas on Tuesday tackled and restrained the plane’s captain after he was locked out of the cockpit by crew members, screamed ‘they’re going to take us down’ and ranted about al-Qaida and a possible bomb onboard, passengers said.
The captain of JetBlue Airways Flight 191 from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport had a “medical situation” and the co-pilot diverted the plane to land in Amarillo, Texas, around 10 a.m., the airline said.
Passengers said the captain stormed out of the cockpit and started acting erratically and seemed disoriented. Tony Antolino, a 40-year-old executive for a security firm, said the captain walked to the back of the plane after crew members tried to calm him down. He then began yelling about an unspecified threat linked to Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They’re going to take us down. They’re taking us down. They’re going to take us down. Say the Lord’s prayer. Say the Lord’s prayer,” the captain screamed, according to Antolino.
Josh Redick, a passenger sitting near the middle of the plane, said the captain seemed “irate” and was “spouting off about Afghanistan and souls and al-Qaida.”
The captain then tried to re-enter the cockpit, but he was not allowed back in. The captain had been exhibiting “erratic behavior,” so the co-pilot locked him out of the cockpit, the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement.
Gabriel Schonzeit, who was sitting in the third row, said the captain said there could be a bomb on board the flight.
“He started screaming about al-Qaida and possibly a bomb on the plane and Iraq and Iran and about how we were all going down,” Schonzeit told the Amarillo Globe-News.
Antolino, who said he sat in the 10th row, said he and three others tackled the captain as he ran for the cockpit door, pinned him and held him down while the plane landed at Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport.
“That’s how we landed,” he said. “There were four of us on top of him. ... Everybody else kind of took a seat and that’s how we landed.”
An off-duty airline captain who just happened to be a passenger on the flight went to the flight deck and took over the duties of the ill captain “once on the ground,” the airline said in a statement. It didn’t elaborate.
Shane Helton, 39, of Quinlan, Okla., said he saw emergency and security personnel coming on and off the plane as it sat on the tarmac at the Amarillo airport.
“They pulled one guy out on a stretcher and put him in an ambulance,” said Helton, who went to the airport with his fiancee to see one of her sons off as he joined the Navy.
Helton said the ambulance then sat on the tarmac next to the plane for more than 30 minutes.
JetBlue said the ill captain was taken to a medical facility in Amarillo.
Authorities interviewed each of the passengers once they had landed and left the plane, said 22-year-old passenger Grant Heppes, of New York City.
The FBI was coordinating an investigation with the airport police, Amarillo police, the FAA and the Transportation Safety Administration, said agency spokeswoman Lydia Maese in Dallas. She declined to say if any arrests had been made.
As a result of the incident, the FAA is likely to review the captain’s medical certificate — essentially a seal of approval that the pilot is healthy. All pilots working for scheduled airlines must have a first-class medical certificate. The certificates are required to be renewed every year if the pilot is under 40, every six months if 40 or over.
To obtain a certificate, the pilot must receive a physical examination by an FAA-designated medical examiner that includes questions about the pilot’s psychological condition. The medical examiner can order additional psychological testing.
Pilots are required to disclose all existing physical and psychological conditions and medications.
In 2008, an Air Canada co-pilot had a mental breakdown on a flight from Toronto to London and was forcibly removed from the cockpit, restrained and sedated. A flight attendant with flying experience helped the pilot safely make an emergency landing in Ireland, and none of the 146 passengers and nine crew members on board were injured.
Blaney reported from Lubbock, Texas. Associated Press writer Samantha Bomkampf contributed to this report from New York City.