The Captain Clayton Osbon Story
The CAPTAIN CLAYTON OSBON Story
As part of the start-up team for New Air (which became JetBlue Airways), I had input on the early hiring, some of the operational procedures, training, and pilot check-rides. I was JetBlue’s senior line pilot, check airman, and the first FAA APD (Aircrew Program Designee). I had the honor of rating many of JetBlue’s first captains. Forced from line flying, due to the FAA’s onerous Age 60 Rule, shortly after the 9/11 tragedy, I retired from line flying and became the senior Test Pilot. In this capacity I delivered many of the new Airbus aircraft from Europe to the US. My JetBlue experience remains a wonderful part of my aviation memories. I was with JetBlue, when my professional career ended at the ripe young age of sixty-five, I flew into the sunset some call “retirement.” My “Livin’ the Dream” ended on the first of October, 2006.
During my more than four decades in the airline industry, I met and worked with many of aviation’s finest. As with any industry there will always be a few turkeys. Yet, most of the folks I worked with were superb. This is a story about one of the sharpest JetBlue pilots I’ve known. His story needs tellin’!
This particular JetBlue pilot achieved national prominence. However, his “fifteen minutes of fame” is something he’d gladly forego. There is little doubt he would have preferred going on with his career doing what he loved. He was very good at it.
When I learned of the horrific event where a JetBlue captain had literally gone berserk while flying as the command pilot of Flight 191, I was absolutely stunned. Then, discovering who the captain was, I was in utter disbelief. No way!
What the news portrayed was 180º of the stalwart character, professional captain, and check airman I knew. My quest to learn what really occurred began.
Years before, I had flown with this particular newly minted captain. My impression was, “we need this guy as part of our Check Airmen cadre.” Fewer than a handful of pilots that I worked with at JetBlue made me comfortable enough to recommend them for check airman duties. This pilot was one of those I recognized possessing the knowledge, skill, and personal demeanor necessary. I formally recommended Captain Clayton Osbon to be elevated to Check Airman status at JetBlue Airways. And he was.
The CAPTAIN CLAYTON OSBON Story
Clayton Osbon’s story is fascinating. If you look past the pain Clayton and his wife and soulmate, Connye, went through for so long following JetBlue Flight 191, and if you look at how wrong so many ‘experts’ were, you will, as did I, discover what incredibly fine people Clayton and Connye really are.
Osbon’s story is not only fascinating, it’s tragic! But, not to Clayton himself! He sees things as, “it is what it is!” Moreover, Osbon taking it past the “it is what it is” and says, “it will be what I make it!”
Clayton Frederick Osbon was born January 17, 1963 in Milwaukee. His parents were educated professionals. His father, R.O. “Ozzie” Osbon, was an electrical engineer. His mother, Diane Keck Osbon, was a fine arts major. They also farmed in Wisconsin with Clayton involved in farming life as a youngster.
Clayton was competitive in the Equestrian ‘A’ circuit riding since his early youth. His riding was not without mishap, with his having fallen off a horse at age six and suffering a head injury. Otherwise, his formative years were filled with healthy doses of an inquisitive and gregarious nature. Physically he was healthy albeit hyper. Still, he was slightly above average as a student. In some areas Clayton was deemed an excellent student.
Full of wonder, Clayton was intrigued by God and the Universe, the mechanics of things, and the moon. He had an abiding desire to know how airplanes could fly. He felt a need to ferret out how he should act around adults and classmates, with him growing up an only child. He wanted to fit in. And, he wanted to know how he would fill the shoes of his father and grandfather. All in all, Clayton was a normal kid growing up in rural America.
Both his father and grandfather had graduated from Purdue University as electrical engineers and were successful in their own business. His grandfather, Oran Osbon, was awarded seventeen patents as the chief engineer with Westinghouse. Clayton saw his future a huge challenge to “measure up.”
Early on, Clayton aspired to become an astronaut, an F-14 “Tomcat” pilot, and a physics/electrical engineer inventing and/or researching in the laboratory like his grandfather.
Osbon would go on to receive a bachelor of science degree in Aeronautical Physics. He attended both Nathaniel Hawthorne College (NHC) and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). He favored CMU over Purdue as the former had a higher ranking in the Humanities and Sciences programs at that time.
Osbon chose NHC over Embry-Riddle and Purdue for his flight training. He felt, rightly so, that the flight conditions at NHC, being in New Hampshire, would be much more challenging with the terrain and weather. Additionally, NHC employed a higher number of retired airline pilots whose experience would be of immense benefit.
Before Osbon interviewed with JetBlue Airways in March of 2000, he, like most of his peers, earned the necessary ratings and built time to qualify. He earned his Airline Transport Pilot Certificate from Martha Lunkin of the FAA, who type rated Osbon in Sporty’s Pilot Shop’s Cessna C-550 ‘Citation’ at the Lunkin Airport in Cincinnati.
Even after all that befell Osbon following Flight 191, he maintains a very positive attitude drawing on a strong religious faith, love of family, and the inspirations from those he is closest. Even though he has been much maligned by others, who should know better, Osbon knows that it was a Complex-Partial Brain Seizure Event that was the cause behind the federal indictment of “Interference with Flight Crew.” He was found “Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity.”
There are evil-doers in Clayton’s story. Certain individuals within the United States Government, faceless bureaucrats, historically rush to judgement sans facts. I’m reminded of the two FAA inspectors who made life miserable for one of the greatest of all time aviators, RA “Bob” Hoover. In my view, it was horrible abuse of power by these two nefarious FAA inspectors.
As you read on you will learn, as I did, what most of us saw pasted on the front page, and broadcast over national news, that fateful day March 27th, 2012, was, without a doubt, a travesty. Clayton had experienced a psychotic episode over the Texas skies. However, these miscreant individuals, with no hesitation, labeled him a criminal.
Captain Osbon began the day as the command pilot on an Airbus A-320 operating as JetBlue Flight 191. There were plenty of “hints” that something was amiss with the captain. No one picked up on the telling signs. This resulted in Flight 191 ending badly for Captain Osbon, his crew, and his passengers. JetBlue as a company, would suffer from considerable negative press. Likely, Osbon’s psychotic episode wasn’t preventable. However, where he was when it happened was totally preventable. All the signs were there. No one reacted, even when they noticed something was amiss.
Instantly, all fingers of blame pointed straight at Captain Osbon. To me, it is understandable how those first responders, and even the crew, misread what had happened.
So terribly wrong were the ‘experts.’ They have persisted in their wrongfulness. This is inexcusable. Bureaucrats wearing blinders an all too common thing.
How can I excuse the facts that the captain of JetBlue Flight 191 became “uncorked” and ran raving down the isle of the airliner of which he was in command? Understandably, the crew and passengers hesitated to overpower the captain of the flight. They finally sprang into action and rendered the captain immobile.
The First Officer secured the flight deck and elected to land at Amarillo, Texas. Captain Osbon’s horror was just beginning. Instead of treating him as a patient, he was immediately “convicted” universally by seemingly everyone except Connye and those of us who knew the real Captain Clayton Osbon. Osbon was treated like a radical Islamic terrorist when, in fact, he was in dire need of medical care.
Somehow, he was charged with interference with himself! The charge read “…interference with the flight crew.” This carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison” and a $250,000 fine if convicted. Captain Osbon was the captain of Flight 191. Never being officially relieved of command, he was the captain even after being trussed up by his passengers and cabin crew. From beginning to end, Captain Clayton Osbon was “officially” in command of JBU Flight 191!
I would certainly like to know what Captain Osbon’s thoughts are on those federal charges. How is it possible that Osbon be charged with interfering with himself? Unfortunately, I am tasked with my due diligence elsewhere regarding the event on that day. The reason being, Osbon is prevented from discussing his situation pursuant to an agreement with his former employer, JetBlue.
From my perspective, Osbon has taken the high-road. I have yet to hear him speak, even angrily, about the mistreatment he received from our federal government officialdom. There just is no vitriol, no hate emanating from Osbon. However, I sense his frustration, and who wouldn’t feel that way, given how he was mistreated and wrongly judged from the beginning. Osbon was exhibiting crazy behavior, not criminal behavior. He needed medical help and right away.
Happy Times with Connye & Clayton Osbon
Here’s the nifty WWII L-4 Cub Clayton had to sell. He’s no longer able to fly.
Here is what noted aviation pilot/author/speaker/consultant/analyst, John Nance, says:
Hang ‘Em High (originally published in Pro-Pilot Magazine)
Written by John J. Nance in 2012 shortly after Flight 191’s Splash of Color on the national news:
The nightmare of being thrown in jail and publicly destroyed in retaliation for an honest human mistake is particularly disturbing to professional pilots, but the worry is very valid. True, most of the contemporary examples have been overseas – including the attempt to criminally prosecute two American pilots for a 2006 midair collision with a GOL 737 over Brazil (despite the clear culpability of ATC). But the potential for criminalization of even the most benign of pilot/aircrew mistakes is a real possibility even in the U.S., as the plight of JetBlue Captain Clayton Osbon clearly demonstrates.
What does a rare psychotic episode in an airline cockpit have to do with the rest of us in business or private aviation?
Everything, because what we witnessed in Amarillo, Texas, is nothing less than 19th century mob justice cloaked disingenuously in the garb of reasonable prosecution. The fact is, the target could just as easily be a corporate pilot or a private pilot – you or me – who accidentally did something that made the public upset enough to cry for blood.
That is precisely what was at work here: the perception that Captain Osbon consciously imperiled his aircraft on March 27th and profoundly scared his crew and his passengers. Never mind that the reason for his bizarre conduct and crazy statements were undoubtedly the result of some form of unintended mental incapacitation.
As strange as it seems, we human pilots are actually capable of falling victim to a temporary psychosis (whether caused by pharmaceuticals or psychiatries). But in apparent ignorance of this reality, the “system” in this case hysterically responded to public and media upset by immediately concocting the oxymoronic idea that Captain Osbon’s mental meltdown was purposeful, and therefore criminal. Once that Orwellian attitude was in place (forget the old bromide about being presumed innocent), his breakdown was met with the all the compassion and support a federal criminal indictment can provide.
Frankly, the only real difference between the actions of the prosecutor and frontier “justice” of the old American West was the use of jail and criminal charges in place of a noose and a stout tree. The decision to charge a crime so quickly was an embarrassingly premature and legally moronic decision. It was the moral equivalent of a lynching. Throwing the poor man in jail in the meantime was just mean-spirited venality.
Is this who we are as a people, so determined to inflict pain in retaliation for any professional incapacity that even a mental catastrophe is treated as voluntary before the basic facts are known? If so, how could any of us expect more intelligent (not to mention compassionate) treatment if we were to ever commit a cockpit mistake that upset the body politic?
No, we still don’t have a clear indication of what caused Captain Osbon’s “meltdown,” but what any of us as professional airmen do understand is that the ravings and rantings coming from Osbon’s mouth that day were those of an incapacitated airman, not someone who had the mental ability at that moment to purposefully disrupt anything – including his own crew. Even if a case like this was caused by the inappropriate or even illegal ingestion of pharmaceuticals, charging an incapacitated man with crew interference was clearly the wrong crime. Worse, charging the head of the flight crew with interference with the flight crew means Osbon is charged with interfering with himself, which is at best Alice-in-Wonderland logic.
In a nutshell, this is a monumentally tawdry case of official overreaction to public and passenger upset in declaring a medical condition to be a crime. If that made any sense, we would have to henceforth respond to any inflight pilot heart attack or serious intestinal upset with an indictment instead of an ambulance.
Regardless of the outcome of Captain Osbon’s case, any licensed professional pilot who fails to be disturbed by this outrageous ignorance of crew incapacitation and misuse of the criminal justice system is not understanding the situation. Mob justice simply does not belong in the 21st century under any guise, and when it exists, it raises a direct threat to us all.”
John is an ABC Analyst, Professional Speaker, Author, and Consultant.
He’s written seventeen books so far and working on another as of this writing. He is a two time New York Times Best Selling Author. Captain Nance knows of what he speaks and writes. He is a retired captain from Alaska Airlines, and flies his own Mooney for pleasure. Nance is the ‘go to’ source for the media when there is an aviation anomaly.
I met John Nance at the Airline Pilots Dialogue in 1986 when we both spoke to a large assemblage of fellow airline pilots from around the US. I was immediately impressed by Captain Nance’s acumen and speaking ability. He had been with Braniff Airlines and, later, Alaskan Airlines. Multifaceted, Nance had been a practicing attorney licensed in Texas.
The ‘Dialogue’ was hosted by the president of the Allie Pilots Association, Captain Fred Vogle. Besides John and myself, American Airlines CEO, Bob Crandall, spoke. Yup! Nance had a grasp of things in 1986 and still does.
Dr. Kevin Winders, M.D. Director Savannah Psychiatry
Captain Billy Walker, JetBlue Airways, Ret.