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JetBlue captain who was restrained by passengers grew increasingly erratic during flight

Thursday, March 29, 2012

(Photo)
Emergency workers tend to a JetBlue captain who had a "medical situation" during a Las Vegas-bound flight from JFK International airport Tuesday in Amarillo, Texas.
(AP Photo/Steve Douglas)
RICHMOND HILL, Ga. -- JetBlue Airways captain Clayton Osbon showed up unusually late to fly Flight 191 to Las Vegas. The plane was in midair when he eerily told his co-pilot they wouldn't make it there.

Osbon started rambling about religion. He scolded air traffic controllers to quiet down, then turned off the radios altogether, and dimmed the monitors in the cockpit. He said aloud that "things just don't matter" and encouraged his co-pilot that they take a leap of faith.

"We're not going to Vegas," Osbon said.

What unfolded next, according to court documents released Wednesday, was a dramatic chase and struggle in the cabin that ended with passengers tackling Osbon, 49, and holding him down until the co-pilot could make an emergency landing in Amarillo, Texas. He was charged Wednesday with interfering with a flight crew.

A pilot with JetBlue since 2000, Osbon's odd behavior Tuesday became increasingly erratic after the flight departed New York, worrying his fellow crew members so much that they locked him out after he abruptly left the cockpit, according to an affidavit. Osbon then started yelling about Jesus, al-Qaida and a possible bomb on board, forcing passengers to tie him up with seat belt extenders and zip tie handcuffs for about 20 minutes until the plane landed.

"The [first officer] became really worried when Osbon said ‘we need to take a leap of faith,'" according to the sworn affidavit given by FBI agent John Whitworth. "Osbon started trying to correlate completely unrelated numbers like different radio frequencies, and he talked about sins in Las Vegas."

Osbon left the cockpit soon after and tensions on the plane began to escalate, according to witness accounts compiled by investigators. Osbon, described by neighbors in Georgia as tall and muscular, "aggressively" grabbed the hands of a flight attendant who confronted him and later sprinted down the cabin while being chased.

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, the affidavit said. Passengers wrestled Osbon to the ground, and one female flight attendant's ribs were bruised during the struggle. No one on board was seriously hurt.

The federal charges against Osbon were filed in Texas. He was being held Wednesday at Northwest Texas Healthcare System in Amarillo and remains under a medical evaluation.

Under federal law, a conviction for interference with a flight crew or attendants can bring up to 20 years in prison. The offense is defined as assaulting or intimidating the crew, interfering with its duties or diminishes its ability to do operate the plane.

JetBlue spokeswoman Allison Steinberg said earlier Wednesday that Osbon had been suspended pending a review of the flight.

JetBlue's CEO and president Dave Barger told NBC's "Today" show that Osbon is a "consummate professional" whom he has "personally known" for years. He said there is nothing in the captain's record to indicate he would be a risk on a flight.

Fellow pilots, friends and Osbon's neighbors in Richmond Hill, Ga., a bedroom community on the coast just south of Savannah, said they were baffled by the midflight outburst. None recalled any previous health or mental problems.

Bill Curley, a friend of Osbon's for nearly 30 years, said Osbon was a Christian who had become "increasingly" religious but wasn't fanatical.

Erich Thorp, a neighbor who recently helped Osbon put a fence in his yard, described Osbon as affable and outgoing, standing about 6-foot-4 with a crew cut and a muscular build.

"I just don't know what happened. It's just not like Clayton," Thorp said. "He was always happy and positive thinking. He never complained about anything."

Osbon was also a direct marketer for health shakes sold by Visalus Sciences, a marketing company based in Troy, Mich. Ashley Guerra, a fellow Visalus marketer in Georgia, said she saw Osbon just last weekend and that he appeared friendly and helpful as usual.

In an interview last year with the local magazine Richmond Hill Reflections, Osbon said he first got in the cockpit when he was 6 or 7 and had ambitions of becoming a motivational speaker. His father was a pilot who died in a plane crash in 1995 while on a sunken treasure hunt, according to a story in the Washington Island Observer, a newspaper in the small Wisconsin community where Osbon's parents had a home.

Osbon's LinkedIn profile states that he received a degree from aeronautical physics from Hawthorne College and a physics degree from Carnegie Mellon University. However, Carnegie Mellon spokeswoman Teresa Thomas said Osbon attended the school for three years but never obtained his degree.

Justin Ates, a corporate jet pilot who lives in Richmond Hill and is friends with Osbon, said he's at a loss because the ranting man shown in the media is nothing like the man he knows. Ates said Osbon is a runner, goes sailing and generally likes to have a good time. Osbon also keeps a small, single-engine Piper Cub at a private airport in Savannah.

"He's always happy," Ates said. "He'll be sitting at my house and he'll just pick up a bunch of apples and start juggling in front of the kids. That's just the type of guy he is."


Bynum reported from Richmond Hill, Ga., Robbins from Dallas. Associated Press writers Paul Weber in San Antonio, Samantha Bomkamp in New York, Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Texas; and Oskar Garcia in Las Vegas contributed to this report.


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