Skill and luck converged in the cockpit and cabin of a JetBlue Airways plane to bring it safely to earth from more than 6 miles above the U.S. heartland.
The danger from a captain’s erratic behavior on Flight 191 at 34,000 feet was defused by the combination of an assertive co-pilot and the presence of an off-duty pilot on board, along with a quartet of ready-for-action security-industry professionals en route to a Las Vegas conference.
“It was pretty much the best set of circumstances you could ask for in this situation,” said John Nance, a former U.S. Air Force and commercial pilot with 40 years of flying experience who is now a Seattle-based consultant. “The system worked exactly as it should have.”
In a span of minutes, Capt. Clayton Osbon was locked out by the co-pilot alarmed by utterances in the cockpit, subdued by the convention-goers as he banged on the door, and then tied up with passengers’ belts while an off-duty pilot helped the first officer land the Airbus SAS A320 in Amarillo, Texas.
The Tuesday incident left passengers shaken. After leaving the flight deck to prowl the cabin and use a lavatory, the captain tried to batter his way back to the controls and bellowed incomprehensibly when grabbed by four men determined to keep him out, travelers said.
“All I was thinking was that these 130 people on the plane are frightened and thinking they’re going to die,” said David Gonzalez, 50, a retired New York City corrections officer who was the first to reach Osbon. “I wasn’t thinking about 9/11. I’m fighting the pilot. It wasn’t like he was a terrorist.”
Gonzalez, director of business development for home- surveillance company Tri-Ed/Northern Video Distribution in Woodbury, N.Y., spoke Wednesday from Las Vegas, where he was attending International Security Conference West. So was Tony Antolino, another of the foursome who helped corral Osbon.
“He started shouting about how they got us in Iran and Iraq and Afghanistan, and that they’re going to take us down,” Antolino said. “When he started saying the Lord’s Prayer, we tackled him to the ground and restrained him.”
Until the pilot left the cockpit and spent about 15 minutes in the cabin, there were no clues for passengers that anything was amiss, said Antolino, chief marketing officer for security- system provider EyeLock Corp. in New York.
The twin-engine A320 was about halfway into the journey of approximately 2,250 miles , based on data compiled by FlightAware.com, a real-time plane-tracking site. Its altitude had been little changed for more than three hours, and it was near the Texas and Oklahoma panhandle regions.
“The real hero is the co-pilot who was able to secure the plane,” Antolino said. “If he wasn’t able to do that, it would have been a tragic outcome.”
JetBlue declined to identify the co-pilot, the off-duty pilot or other crew members besides Osbon. The New York-based airline said in a website posting that “they handled the situation perfectly.”
Since the late 1980s, airlines have trained pilots in crew resource management, which emphasizes collaboration and challenging captains’ decisions that may be deemed unsafe. Even with that backdrop, Nance said he had never heard of a co-pilot locking out a captain after briefly leaving the flight deck.
“That’s a pretty heavy responsibility to take on,” said Richard Healing, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board. “It would not be something anyone would do without pretty strong evidence there is a potential problem.”
Osbon, 49, is a flight standards officer, a role in which he instructs, evaluates and mentors pilots on A320s. Chief Executive Officer Dave Barger told NBC’s “Today” show the captain is a “consummate professional.”
Hours later, JetBlue said Osbon had been suspended as it investigates the case, and U.S. Attorney Sarah R. Saldana for the Northern District of Texas said he had been charged with interference with a crew member.
The captain was late to a pre-flight crew briefing at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, Saldana said in a statement. In the air, he talked about religion and made remarks that concerned the co-pilot, including saying “we need to take a leap of faith” and that Flight 191 and its 135 passengers were “not going to Vegas,” according to the statement.
Osbon also failed to follow airline procedures when he exited the cockpit, banged on a lavatory door and began making comments about “Jesus, Sept. 11, Iraq, Iran and terrorists,” according to the U.S. attorney’s statement.
“Something was a little bit off” when the captain came into the cabin, passenger Antolino said. “When you fly a lot, you get used to the rhythms of the plane, and he was spending a lot of time outside the cockpit.”
When Osbon was in the restroom, the off-duty pilot was shuffled into the flight deck and the cockpit door secured again by changing the security code, said Gonzalez, whose Row 2 seat was close to the action.
A captain “is a real threat if he’s up there in the cockpit and has something happen to him, said Bill Waldock, a professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. “Once he’s back in the cabin, they can handle him.”
A pilot in uniform conveys authority, probably giving passengers pause before a physical challenge, Waldock said. Antolino said Osbon’s size, at an estimated 6 feet 4 inches and 250 pounds, also made it a “struggle.”
As Osbon kicked the cockpit door to regain entry, he wrestled with two flight attendants, one of whom mouthed “help me,” according to passenger Gonzalez, who said he stepped in to apply a choke hold on the captain.
“Just as he was about to pass out, I let him down on the floor and everyone jumped on, gave me belts and we tied him down,” Gonzalez said. When convention organizers learned of Gonzalez’s role, he was honored with an impromptu ceremony at Las Vegas’s Sands Expo & Convention Center, said Ed Several, a spokesman.
While modern planes such as A320s can be flown by one pilot, they’re safer when flown by two. With the off-duty pilot also at the controls of Flight 191, the first officer declared a medical emergency and diverted to Amarillo.
From a westerly course at a ground speed of 480 mph, the jet banked left to turn southeast to reach Amarillo’s Rick Husband International Airport, based on data compiled by FlightAware.com.
Pilots are trained to touch down as quickly as is safely possible in an emergency, and Flight 191’s reconstituted flight crew did just that: They descended 28,100 feet in about 13 minutes, more than twice as fast as the approach they would have used to Las Vegas, the data show.
Law enforcement authorities met the plane on the ground, where passengers were interviewed and then awaited the arrival of another A320 sent in from Long Beach, Calif., to ferry them on to Las Vegas. JetBlue gave Flight 191’s passengers a one-way refund and travel vouchers.
Gonzalez, the passenger, said Osbon briefly regained consciousness after landing.
“He said, ‘We did it, we got it down’ and then blacked out again,” Gonzalez said. Osbon left the plane on a stretcher, and a JetBlue spokeswoman, Jenny Dervin, said he remained yesterday in a medical facility in Amarillo in Federal Bureau of Investigation custody.
“This appears to have been handled as well as you could hope,” Embry-Riddle’s Waldock said. “All those parts came together very well and everyone did what they were trained to do. It could have had a much more serious outcome.”
Alexander Yablon and Alan Levin contributed to this story.