A federal criminal complaint alleges that JetBlue captain Clayton Osbon told his first officer, "we need to take a leap of faith." NBC's Tom Costello reports.
A federal criminal complaint against Clayton Osbon, the 49-year-old JetBlue captain who had a mid-air meltdown on Tuesday, suggests he was acting strangely as Flight 191 was taking off from New York for Las Vegas.
The complaint, NBC News has learned, states Osbon arrived late to JFK and missed the crew briefing. As the flight took off, Osbon mentioned “being evaluated by someone” to the first officer, spoke of church and needing to “focus.” He asked the first officer to take the controls as he made incoherent comments about religion and then said, “things just don’t matter.”
Over the radio, Osbon yelled at air traffic controllers to be quiet and admonished the first officer for talking on the radio and then said, “we need to take a leap of faith.” He spoke of sins in Las Vegas and said, “we’re not going to Vegas,” according to the complaint.
Osbon then abruptly left the cockpit, banged on the door of an occupied lavatory and later became irate when he learned he was locked out of the cockpit.
Osbon is charged with interfering with a flight crew and, if convicted, could face 20 years in prison.
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.
JetBlue spokeswoman Allison Steinberg said Osbon had been suspended pending a review of the flight.
JetBlue CEO Dave Barger told TODAY’s Matt Lauer that Osbon was a “consummate professional.”
Clayton Osbon, who had been flying for nearly 25 years, allegedly began yelling at air traffic controllers and later ran toward the cockpit door after getting locked out.
Osbon’s troubling behaviors have shed light on how the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) monitors pilots’ health, both physical and mental.
The FAA requires that airline pilots have a medical certificate, which must be renewed annually if the pilot is under 40 and every six months if the pilot is older than 40. To receive the certificate, pilots undergo a physical examination by an FAA-designated physician.
Osbon’s last exam was in December, and he passed, FAA said.
Pilots will normally be grounded from duty if they suffer from bipolar or personality disorders, certain anxieties and psychosis. FAA does allow pilots to fly while taking some anti-depressant drugs.
“These are very serious conditions and as a result they will impair a pilot’s judgement,” said Dr. Anthony Bilotta, an aviation medical examiner. “They would impair anyone’s judgement for that matter.”
John Cox, a former captain for US Airways, said: “A captain on an airline is one of many jobs that you do not want to have somebody incapacitated.”
Osbon’s bizarre behaviors have perplexed many people who know him.
The pilot lives in Georgia, but also has a “crash pad”—a part-time residence to stay before or in between trips — in New York. His land lady, Wanda Serra, was stunned by Osbon’s behavior, saying, “what could have happened? I don’t know … I don’t know.”
"I can't say whether it's shock or disbelief," said Justin Ates, a corporate jet pilot and friend who lives in Richmond Hill, Ga. "It's hard to describe what you feel when you see something that's completely 100 percent out of character."
"He wouldn't intentionally hurt anyone," said Bud Lawyer, a friend and neighbor. "He's a kind-hearted, generous, loving teddy bear. It's totally out of character for this to happen to him."
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.
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.
In a statement issued to NBC News, Osbon's mother, Judy Osbon, said her son "loved to fly."
"He also took his piloting very seriously and was very good at it. I've only known Clayton to be a cheerful, conscientious and caring person."
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 but never obtained 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."
NBC News' Tom Costello, msnbc.com's Rebecca Ruiz and The Associated Press contributed to this report.