The JetBlue pilot who was restrained Tuesday aboard a Las Vegas-bound flight had a panic attack, according to law enforcement sources, while the FAA called the incident a medical emergency.
Unruly captain Clayton Osbon, with 131 passengers and six crew members aboard flight 191, was subdued by at least five passengers after his co-pilot reportedly locked him out of the cockpit when he displayed potentially dangerous behavior. The flight from Kennedy Airport in New York was diverted to Amarillo, Texas.
The veteran captain, a commercial pilot since 1989, was not at the controls but "began acting erratically, flipping switches in the cockpit and appearing confused," according to the sources. They said his co-pilot tricked him into going to the passenger compartment to check something out, then locked the door and changed the security code behind him.
"The captain of the plane just went berserk," passenger Wayne Honlnes said. "He came out of the other end of the plane … came running back to the cockpit and he was shouting out these numbers … 500 something. He started banging on the cockpit door."
While Osbon was in the cabin, an off-duty JetBlue pilot who was traveling on the flight managed to enter the cockpit and help land the plane.
"Another captain, traveling off duty, entered the flight deck prior to landing at Amarillo, and took over the duties of the ill crewmember once on the ground," JetBlue said in a statement. "The aircraft arrived Amarillo at 10:11 am CT, and the crewmember was removed from the aircraft and taken to a local medical facility."
Passenger David Gonzalez, a former corrections officer from New York City, said he was sitting in the second row of flight 191 when he saw the captain storm out of the cockpit and rush toward an occupied bathroom. Flight attendants struggled to control him and Gonzalez, 50, said the captain began moving in the direction of the plane's emergency exit.
Gonzalez said he had gone to help the flight attendant and asked the captain what his problem was. Gonzalez said the unruly pilot replied, "You'd better start praying right now," and was shouting about Al Qaeda, a bomb, and threatening that the plane is going down.
"I was actually the one that took him down. I noticed he was very erratic," Gonzalez said. "He was pinned against the door. I was afraid he was going to knock down the door. I was able to put a choke hold on him. I was able to get him weak from cutting his wind pipe.
"When he buckled, I realized I had him where I need him. So I put a little more pressure, and that's when he almost passed out. So I threw him to the floor. That's when the team came in and started helping me … I just didn't want him opening up that door. I knew if he got in there, we wouldn't be sitting here now."
Gonzalez felt the man get weak and he passed out about three minutes later. The men, who took off their belts to tie his legs, as Osbon was reportedly able to break through plastic handcuffs, sat on the pilot until landing.
"If he got a second wind, I'd have to apply more pressure and I didn't want to hurt him," Gonzalez said. "I just wanted to get him calm, get the plane down and get him some medical assistance."
Gonzalez, who lives in the Poconos area of Pennsylvania and is a married father of five children, said he used to work for the New York City Department of Correction and now works for a security and surveillance company. He was on his way to Las Vegas for an annual security show.
Gonzalez remained on top of the captain until the plane landed, afraid of what might happen if he got free.
He said it "looked like a TV SWAT show" when the plane landed, with police swarming the plane.
On the ground, Osbon was taken off the plane in handcuffs and a wheelchair by Amarillo police. He is now in FBI custody. Once safe on the ground, passengers thanked Gonzalez and asked to take photos with him, hailing him a hero.
JetBlue Pilot: Should FAA Doctors Do Psychological Screen?
While airline pilots submit to yearly medical tests by an FAA doctor, psychiatric screening is not a required element of testing.
"If there's no suspicion on the part of the doctor, they will sign that they're clear to fly," Kevin Hiatt, a veteran commercial captain and now safety consultant said.
Hiatt also adds that there is no specific training for what to do if your co-pilot loses it during flight either.
"The pilots are trained on what to do if a partner becomes incapacitated and can't land the aircraft," Hiatt said.
Tuesday's incident is not the first time airline crews have alarmed or even killed passengers. In October 1999 on Egypt Air, flight 990, a 767 from New York to Cairo with 217 aboard, disappeared when the co-pilot deliberately crashed the plane into the Atlantic.
In 1997, a Silk Air 737 flying over Indonesia nose-dived, killing 104 passengers. Investigators say the pilot committed suicide, taking all of his passengers with him.
Earlier this month, an American Airlines flight attendant had to be restrained after threatening impending doom. That plane returned to the gate and the flight attendant was taken away, complaining of psychiatric problems.
And, of course, there was the infamous 2010 story of JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater, who pulled the shoot, grabbed a drink and told passengers to shove this job at Kennedy Airport in New York before sliding down the escape slide.