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JetBlue pilot's unraveling baffles friends

By Paul J. Webber and Russ Bynum

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 03:14 a.m. HST, Mar 29, 2012

RICHMOND HILL, Ga. » 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.

One aviation expert said he couldn't remember a pilot being prosecuted on the charge, which reads as though it was written with passengers in mind.

"I've been doing this for more than 50 years, and I can't recall anything like this," said Denny Kelly, a private investigator in Dallas and former Braniff Airlines pilot.

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.

Osbon went to church but seldom talked about it and never seemed overly zealous, Lawyer said. And while the friends would occasionally chat about events in the Middle East, their talk never went beyond casual conversation about the events in the news, he said.

"He wouldn't intentionally hurt anyone," Lawyer said. "He's a kind-hearted, generous, loving teddy bear. It's totally out of character for this to happen to him."

Another longtime friend, Bill Curley, said Osbon is a Christian who has become "increasingly" religious but wasn't fanatical.

Osbon was also a direct marketer for health shakes sold by Visalus Sciences, a marketing company based in Troy, Mich. Ashley Guerra, a fellow Visalus marketer in Georgia, said she saw Osbon just last weekend and that he appeared friendly and helpful as usual.

In an interview last year with the local magazine Richmond Hill Reflections, Osbon said he first got in the cockpit when he was 6 or 7 and had ambitions of becoming a motivational speaker. His father and another man died after the engines in their plane failed over Daytona Beach while en route to look for treasure in Fort Lauderdale, according to 1995 story in the Washington Island Observer, a newspaper in the small Wisconsin community where Osbon's parents had a home.

Osbon's LinkedIn profile states that he received a degree from aeronautical physics from Hawthorne College and a physics degree from Carnegie Mellon University. However, Carnegie Mellon spokeswoman Teresa Thomas said Osbon attended the school for three years never obtain his degree.

"On a Sunday morning he'd call me up and say, 'Let's go for a flight,'" neighbor Erich Thorp said. "Even with that little Piper Cub, before he would take it off the ground he would spend 15 minutes checking everything out. He had a whole list he would check. He was as careful a pilot as you could imagine."


Bynum reported from Richmond Hill, Ga., and Weber from San Antonio. Associated Press writers Danny Robbins in Dallas, Samantha Bomkamp in New York, Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Texas; Kate Brumbeck in Richmond Hill, Todd Richmond in Madison, Wis., and Oskar Garcia in Las Vegas contributed to this report.

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manakuke wrote:
What real fright flight!
on March 28,2012 | 05:19AM
Publicbraddah wrote:
Unless the FAA looks into what's happening with pilots and crew, we can expect more incidences like this. The stewardess, I believe, was not taking her meds for her bipolar condition. I hope they find out more about the captain and that he recovers.
on March 28,2012 | 06:39AM
islandsun wrote:
He should never fly again!
on March 28,2012 | 08:14AM
OldDiver wrote:
At least not on a flight that I am on.
on March 28,2012 | 08:48AM
Grimbold wrote:
The poor guy was secetly given a mind-altering drug by al-Quaida terrorists. That is their new idea to destroy us.
on March 28,2012 | 08:22AM
OldDiver wrote:
Outside the box.
on March 28,2012 | 08:49AM
aomohoa wrote:
PTSD, someone slipped something in his coffee, or medical. Who knows. Maybe he has a brain tumor. It is good to see that passengers are not afraid to step in.
on March 28,2012 | 09:15AM
what wrote:
I'd like to hear the story about how the co-pilot came to the decision of locking his captain out of the cockpit, and also successfully communicating to another off-duty pilot in the cabin to come in and take over before the captain went over the top. Things could have been so much worse if not for his actions.
on March 28,2012 | 12:47PM
tobyclairmont wrote:
Give the guy a break. Yes, he shouldn't fly any time soon. However behaviorial disturbances and related conditions are common and he should get the care he needs. He's not a criminal nor did he intentionally seek to do harm. He's human like the rest of us. I'll bet something awful is going on in his life - finances, divorce, etc. This event highlights the importance of having two pilots in the aircraft. Obviously sound decison-making by the first officer and other crew assured the safety of everyone involved. My hats off to the crew, the passengers who assisted and Jet-Blue!
on March 28,2012 | 02:19PM
fbiguy wrote:
Well said, Tob, but he shouldn't fly again. DMATPSY
on March 28,2012 | 09:11PM
serious wrote:
As usual it's the passengers who overcame the disruptive guy---where were the flight attendants?????
on March 28,2012 | 05:15PM
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