LAS VEGAS – Screaming “They’re going to take us down!” a JetBlue pilot stormed through his plane rambling about a bomb and threats from Iraq on Tuesday until passengers on the Las Vegas-bound flight tackled him to the ground just outside the cockpit, passengers said.
The captain of JetBlue Airways Flight 191 from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport was taken to a hospital after suffering a “medical situation” on board that forced the co-pilot to take over the plane and land it in Amarillo, Texas, the airline said.
The unidentified pilot seemed disoriented, jittery and constantly sipped water when he first marched through the cabin, then began to rant about threats linked to Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan after crew members tried to calm him down in the back, passengers said.
“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 passenger Tony Antolino.
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 outburst came weeks after an American Airlines flight attendant was taken off a plane for rambling about 9/11 and her fears the plane would crash.
The captain was tackled by several passengers after he tried to re-enter the cockpit, which had been locked by the co-pilot, the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement.
Antolino, a security executive who was sitting in the 10th row, said he and three others pinned down the captain as he ran for the cockpit door and sat on him for about 20 minutes until the plane landed at Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport at 10 a.m.
“A group of us just jumped up instinctually and grabbed him and put him to the ground,” Antolino said after arriving in Las Vegas later Tuesday. “Clearly he had an emotional or mental type of breakdown.”
An off-duty airline captain who was a passenger on the flight entered the flight deck before landing in Amarillo and took over the duties of the ill captain, the airline said in a statement.
The captain was taken to a local medical facility after the plane landed, the airline said without elaborating.
The FBI was coordinating an investigation with the airport police, Amarillo police, the FAA and the Transportation Safety Administration.
The FAA is likely to review the unidentified captain’s medical certificate – essentially a seal of approval that the pilot is healthy.
The flight left New York around 7 a.m. and was in the air for 3 1/2 hours before landing in Texas. The passengers boarded another plane for Las Vegas several hours later.
John Cox, an aviation safety consultant and former airline pilot, said incidents in which pilots become mentally incapacitated during a flight are “pretty rare.”
Airlines and the FAA strongly encourage pilots to assert themselves if they think safety is being jeopardized, even if it means contradicting a captain’s orders, Cox said. Aviation safety experts have studied several cases where first officers deferred to more experienced captains with tragic results.