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© The Associated Press/Steve Douglas
Emergency workers tend to a JetBlue captain during a Las Vegas-bound flight from JFK International airport Tuesday in Amarillo, Texas.
It was an extraordinarily rare incident in the air - and a frightening one for passengers: A JetBlue captain was locked out of the cockpit and wrestled to the floor by passengers after screaming about a bomb during a flight from New York to Las Vegas.

JetBlue said that the captain of Flight 191, which was diverted to Texas on Tuesday morning, had a "medical situation" and that an off-duty captain traveling on the flight entered the cockpit before the landing "and took over the duties of the ill crewmember once on the ground" in Amarillo.

The co-pilot became concerned that the captain was behaving erratically during the flight, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, which is investigating in coordination with the FBI, the Transportation Security Administration and Amarillo police.

"The captain had exited the cockpit during the flight, after which the co-pilot locked the door," said Brie Sachse, an FAA spokeswoman. "When the captain attempted to enter the locked cockpit, he was subdued by passengers."

Tony Antolino, a security executive from Rye, N.Y., realized something was wrong on the flight when the captain left the cockpit and starting walking erratically through the cabin, drinking water and becoming agitated.

Antolino, 40, says he and several other passengers realized they needed to subdue him after the co-pilot locked the captain out of the cockpit. The captain started yelling about Iraq and Afghanistan, then told passengers to start reciting the Lord's prayer.

"That's when everybody just tackled him and took him down," says Antolino, an executive with a security firm headed to an industry conference. "We just physically stood on top of him until the flight was diverted and we landed in Amarillo."

Although flight attendants have had outbursts and had to be restrained, it's extraordinarily rare for a pilot. The incident raises questions about pilots' mental and physical fitness as well as passengers' safety when a captain and first officer are behind locked and hardened cockpit doors.

Tom Murphy, another passenger, told CNN the flight attendants tried to take the captain to the back of the plane, but he broke free and ran to the front, threatening to blow up the plane and saying there was a bomb on board.

"He started screaming about al-Qaeda and possibly a bomb on the plane and Iraq and Iran and about how we were all going down," Gabriel Schonzeit of New York City, who was seated in the third row, told the Amarillo Globe-News. "It seemed like he went crazy."

Heidi Karg, another passenger on the flight, told CNN that the man was shouting "I need the code, gimme the code, I need to get in there."

"We heard the word 'bomb,'" Karg said. "We didn't know exactly what was going on."

Several passengers wrestled the captain to the floor. David Gonzalez, 50, a former New York City Department of Corrections officer, told ABC News he put the captain in a choke hold.

"We got to get this plane down," Gonzalez, who was traveling to an annual security show, said he recalled thinking. "This guy is nuts."

Former pilot John Cox, president of Safety Operation Systems, said he could recall only a couple of incidents similar to Tuesday's in 40 years in commercial aviation.

Cox said the first officer could have landed the plane safely, even without assistance from the off-duty captain. Cox said crew members are trained to restrain combative passengers under a program called Crew Resource Management that could have applied to the pilot.

"The same training to restrain an abusive passenger that presents a physical threat could be utilized against a crewmember," Cox said. "It was great that there was another captain that was on the flight that could assist the first officer. Had he not been there, though, the first officer is completely capable and trained to land the aircraft. There was never a risk to the passengers."

Airline pilots must have a first-class medical certificate, which is renewed annually if the pilot is under 40 and every six months over that age, according to the FAA. As part of that process, the pilot must have a physical exam by an FAA-designated medical examiner, who assesses the pilot's psychological condition as part of the checkup. The examiner can also order additional psychological testing.

No official mental health testing is required. Instead, pilots are trained to be on the lookout for any sign of mental distress among their peers. "The mental health side is constant monitoring from your co-workers," said Dave Funk, a retired Northwest Airlines captain now an aviation consultant with Laird & Associates.

If someone's personality changes drastically, he said, "We're going to pull him aside. Management will get involved and not in a hostile fashion. We work with people."

"I'd say the system functioned properly," Funk said. "There's a reason we have two pilots, there's a reason we have flight attendants ... One healthy pilot on the flight deck who's qualified would have no problem landing the plane."

Antolino commended the co-pilot for recognizing the captain's erratic behavior, getting him out of the cockpit and landing the plane safely.

"The co-pilot from JetBlue was the real hero for having the sense to recognize that something was wrong here," Antolino says.

In August 2010, an upset JetBlue flight attendant, Steven Slater, pulled the emergency chute on a flight from Pittsburgh International Airport to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. He went on the plane's public-address system, swore at a passenger who he claimed treated him rudely, grabbed a beer and slid down onto the tarmac.

Slater completed a court-ordered treatment program and was sentenced to one-year probation. "That was one moment, that was not indicative of who I am," Slater said at sentencing.

On March 9, American Airlines passengers were settling in for a trip from Dallas to Chicago when a flight attendant launched into a rant on the public-address system about Sept. 11 and the safety of the plane.

Several passengers wrestled the woman into a seat while the plane was still on the ground, and the attendant was taken to Parkland Hospital for evaluation.

Aviation expert Michael Barr said there aren't any good procedures in place if a pilot has a meltdown in the cockpit and the cockpit door is closed, even after the 1999 crash of an EgyptAir flight, in which the pilot appeared to have intentionally crashed the plane.

"Even after EgyptAir there really wasn't a great new procedure. What can you do? The first officer or the captain is going crazy and then you end up with a battle on the flight deck between the two of them and that's not a good thing," he said.

Source: The Associated Press