The alarming, but fortunately well-controlled, incident on United Flight 1074 remains a mystery two days later. The plane was headed from Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., to Denver when a man rushed the cockpit shortly after takeoff, screaming a number of alarming things, including the word “jihad.”
Passengers on the lightly populated plane quickly subdued him, the plane turned around, and police took him into custody. According to various media reports, he is being held at an unspecified hospital in the D.C. area for observation, and presumably psychiatric evaluation, although the FBI is also reportedly investigating any potential links to terrorism. As of Wednesday morning, there was no word of an arrest or formal charges.
This outcome strongly suggests the authorities believe the man, who still has not been publicly identified, was delusional or hysterical, rather than seriously attempting a terrorist attack. The UK Daily Mail reports that investigators “found no weapons either on the man’s person or hidden elsewhere on the plane.” Even a half-baked “lone wolf” jihadi probably would not believe he could breach a cockpit and take over an airplane with his bare hands, post-9/11.
The Daily Mail posted a copy of cell phone video taken by passengers after the man was subdued. He looks a lot more like a man in the throes of a hysterical breakdown than a frustrated terrorist, sobbing that he is sorry for the disturbance he caused while the people holding him down try to calm him.
One of the things he said after being subdued was, “Please stop. Please stop. They said call it off,” which sounds like he is claiming to have received orders from terrorist handlers, but those “orders” seem more likely to have been delivered by voices in his head.
Passengers interviewed after the event said that the man seemed convinced that someone else was trying to hijack the plane, and he was acting to thwart the attack; he specifically mentioned “jihadists in the cargo hold.”
CNN had United 1074 passengers on several of its shows Tuesday, and they spoke of remarkably quick action by several of their fellow passengers during the incident. A passenger named Joshua Lindstrom said that when the mystery man ignored flight attendant instructions and rushed the cockpit, “the guy in 3E was a lightning bolt and just jumped out of his seat and took the guy down to the ground.”
Others assisted in the process of securing the cockpit assailant, acting so quickly and effectively that passenger Donna Tellam said she thought they were all air marshals. She also mentioned that when the incident began, the man “came down the aisle, screaming about the plane going too slow and flailing his arms.”
The crew of United 1074 and the ground team at Dulles handled the incident smoothly enough to prevent any disruption to other operations at the airport. The L.A. Times transcribes some of the calm communication between the pilot and air traffic controllers:
There’s a passenger in the back, he ran forward towards the cockpit and now he is being restrained by other passengers. … We had a passenger becoming violent. No weapons involved. He’s restrained by other passengers now, though. We don’t know his mental health condition. Sounds like he’s restrained for now. We just need to get on the ground.
Fox News adds that the pilot reported the situation to ground control as a “Level 2” disturbance, the second lowest level on a four-point scale, indicating “physically abusive behavior but no life-threatening behavior.”