Military jets scramble to escort Honolulu-bound American Airlines flight after cockpit incident

Key Points
  • Turkish national allegedly tried to break into cockpit on LAX-Honolulu flight.
  • FBI says off-duty cop and others subdued the unruly passenger.
  • US military says two F-22 Raptors from the Hawaii Air National Guard escorted plane.
American Airlines flight 31 on the tarmac in Honolulu after a disturbance was reported mid-flight on May 19, 2017.
Photo: Jaren Yang

Two military fighter jets escorted a Honolulu-bound American Airlines aircraft on Friday after a man allegedly tried to break into the cockpit.

The airline said Flight 31, an Airbus A321 aircraft, landed safety at Honolulu International Airport at 11:35 a.m. local time. The flight originated from Los Angeles International Airport.

"Two Pacific Command F-22 Raptors from the Hawaii Air National Guard scrambled this morning in response to a reported disturbance on a civilian airliner making an approach to Honolulu International Airport," U.S. Navy Commander Dave Benham told CNBC in an emailed statement.

According to the U.S. Pacific Command spokesman, the fighter jets "escorted the airliner to the airport in accordance with homeland defense procedures. Local law enforcement responded once the civilian airliner was on the ground."

"Due to a disturbance during the flight, the crew requested that law enforcement meet the aircraft upon landing in Honolulu," American said. "American is in touch with federal law enforcement."

One of the passengers on the flight has since posted video on Instagram that appears to have been filmed after the plane landed. It shows a handcuffed individual being taken off the plane by FBI agents.

The incident happened about two hours before the flight landed in Honolulu, according to the FBI's Honolulu field office.

"A disturbance aboard a flight alarmed flight crew to the point where an off-duty law enforcement officer and others subdued a passenger," the FBI office said in a statement. It confirmed the individual who caused the apparent disturbance was taken into custody when the plane landed.

Also, the FBI said passengers were escorted off the plane and interviewed as part of the agency's ongoing probe into the incident.

The FBI identified the man as a Turkish national, Anil Uskanil. FBI special agent Paul Delacourt told reporters Friday the government was preparing a complaint to charge Uskanil for interference with a flight crew. As a precaution, the FBI also said he was taken for a medical evaluation.

The 25-year-old Uskanil was involved in another incident early Friday morning that caught the attention of law enforcement, according to police at Los Angeles International Airport.

LAX police said in a statement they received a radio call around 2:45 a.m. local time on Friday about a passenger going through a door from the terminal concourse that led onto the airfield ramp. They said Uskanil, a ticketed passenger who had gone through U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening, was allegedly spotted by an alert contractor and detained.

Police said they investigated the incident at LAX and "Uskanil was arrested for misdemeanor trespassing, cited, given a pending court date and released from custody."

The Turkish national was allowed to board Flight 31 for Hawaii despite the morning incident at LAX. A spokesman for TSA defended allowing him to get on the passenger plane.

"From our perspective, he met the requirements that we had to get him on an airplane," TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said Friday "He did something post-security that police dealt with as they thought they should."

The aircraft departed at 8:34 a.m. local time from LAX with 181 passengers and six crew members on a flight that lasted about six hours.

"Several hours in, passengers and authorities said, he allegedly tried to break through the cockpit door, throwing himself up against a beverage cart as he tried to force his way into the first-class cabinet," HawaiiNewsNow reported.

NBC station KHNL of Honolulu interviewed several passengers who described the terrifying scene.

"I was just laying there sleeping, I get up, hear a noise," passenger Tainoa Foster recalled. "Everybody's like kind of freaking out. I look up and a man has a blanket over his head, and they're like can somebody please help."

Added Foster, "I thought he was like tripping at first but I guess .... [he] rushed the cockpit."

"Well, it was all kind of surreal," passenger Peggy Lorenzen told the Honolulu station. "It all transpired ... so quickly — him rushing the cockpit. It was pretty serious what was going on."

Added Lorenzen, "There were some sturdy guys back there that were
helping hold him down."

The FBI said interviews confirmed that the cockpit door of the American Airlines plane was not breached. They also confirmed the suspect was in the aisle way of the plane but said it was "unclear" exactly what his motivation was at the time.

Bomb technicians searched the jetliner and personal belongings of the suspect, and no explosives were found, according to the FBI. American Airlines said the aircraft returned to service Friday night.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said Secretary John Kelly was briefed on the incident. "DHS is prepared to assist other federal and local law enforcement agencies as they investigate the incident," DHS said.

"This unfortunate incident highlights the tremendous professionalism of American's team members, and specifically, in this situation, our flight attendants," American Airlines said in a statement Saturday. "Their decisive actions ensured the safety of everyone onboard the flight."