They first noticed something wrong when the pilot, Clayton Osbon, came out of the cockpit, did not close the door and tried to force his way into an occupied toilet. The JetBlue captain’s co-workers tried to calm him as he became more jittery, coaxing him to the back of the plane while making sure — above all — he did not get back near the plane’s controls.
Then, he sprinted up the cabin’s aisle — ranting about a bomb, screaming “They’re going to take us down!” and urging confused passengers to pray.
“Nobody knew what to do because he is the captain of the plane,” said Don Davis, one of the passengers on the New York to Las Vegas flight. “You’re not just going to jump up and attack the captain.”
However, four men did tackle the pilot, pinning him to the floor for more than 20 minutes while the co-pilot and an off-duty pilot who was aboard landed the plane in Amarillo, Texas.
“Clearly, he had an emotional or mental type of breakdown,” said Tony Antolino, who tackled the pilot when he tried to re-enter the cockpit. “He became almost delusional.”
Josh Redick, who was sitting near the middle of the plane, said the captain seemed “irate” and was “spouting off about Afghanistan and souls and al-Qaida”.
The airline described the incident as a “medical situation” and that the captain was taken to hospital.
Gabriel Schonzeit, who was sitting in the third row, said the captain said there could be a bomb onboard 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. A group of us just jumped up instinctively and grabbed him and put him to the ground.”
John Cox, an aviation safety consultant and former airline pilot, said incidents in which pilots become mentally incapacitated during a flight are “pretty rare”. He said he could only recall two or three other examples in the more than 40 years he has been following commercial aviation.
Earlier this month, an American Airlines flight attendant took over the public-address system on a flight bound for Chicago and spoke for 15 minutes about Sept 11 and the safety of their plane, saying: “I’m not responsible for this plane crashing.”
Passengers wrestled the flight attendant into a seat while the plane was grounded at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.