By PAUL J. WEBER and RUSS BYNUM, Associated Press
RICHMOND HILL, Ga. (AP) — No one recalls JetBlue Airways captain Clayton Osbon coming unhinged before. Not the airline that let him fly for 12 years, the neighbors in his secluded waterfront community or the friends he tried selling weight-loss shakes to on the side.
Now federal prosecutors have charged Osbon following his bizarre unraveling aboard Flight 191 to Las Vegas, describing in court records a midair breakdown they say began with cockpit ramblings about religion and ended with passengers wrestling him to the cabin floor.
Witness accounts of Osbon telling his co-pilot "things just don't matter" and sprinting down the center aisle — yelling jumbled remarks about Sept. 11 and Iran — baffled longtime friends and fellow pilots who said they couldn't remember previous health or mental problems.
Osbon, 49, was instead described as an affable aviator who took his private plane for joyrides in his spare time, shied from talking politics and hosted Super Bowl parties. His father was also a pilot who died in a 1995 plane crash while on a sunken treasure hunt, according to a Wisconsin newspaper in the town where his family lived.
"I can't say whether it's shock or disbelief," said Justin Ates, a corporate jet pilot and friend who also lives in Richmond Hill. "It's hard to describe what you feel when you see something that's completely 100 percent out of character."
Osbon is charged with interfering with a flight crew following his bizarre outburst Tuesday on the flight that began in New York and was diverted to Amarillo, Texas. He was still being held at a hospital there Wednesday and being medically evaluated.
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 diminishing its ability to operate the plane.
The plane's co-pilot, who made the emergency landing after Osbon became unruly, was being interviewed by federal authorities in New York, his mother-in-law said. Ruth Ann Kostal told The Associated Press on Thursday that she wasn't surprised her son-in-law Jason Dowd had acted cool under pressure but he doesn't want to be considered a hero.
"I'm glad for those people he was the co-pilot that day," Kostal said.
A pilot with JetBlue since 2000, Osbon acted oddly and became increasingly erratic on the flight, worrying his fellow crew members so much that they locked him out of cockpit after he abruptly left for the cabin, according to a federal affidavit. He then started yelling about Jesus, al-Qaida and a possible bomb on board, forcing passengers to tackle him and tie him up with seat belt extenders for about 20 minutes until the planed 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 an FBI agent John Whitworth. "Osbon started trying to correlate completely unrelated numbers like different radio frequencies, and he talked about sins in Las Vegas."
Investigators said they were told that Osbon scolded air traffic controllers to quiet down, then turned off the radios altogether, and dimmed the monitors in the cockpit. He allegedly 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 told his co-pilot in midflight, according to the affidavit.
Osbon, described by neighbors as tall and muscular, "aggressively" grabbed the hands of a flight attendant who confronted him and later dashed down the cabin while being chased. 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.
JetBlue spokeswoman Allison Steinberg said Osbon had been suspended pending a review of the flight. JetBlue 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 nothing in the captain's record indicates he would be a risk on a flight.
In Richmond Hill, a bedroom community on the Georgia coast just south of Savannah, next-door neighbor Bud Lawyer said he's having a hard time believing the man on the news is his good friend.