JUNEAU, Alaska – A passenger on a small plane en route to a small western Alaska community said he was trying to end his life when he took control of the plane’s yoke and made it sniff before the pilot was able to regain control and safely land the plane, said the Alaska State Troopers.
The incident took place on Wednesday on a flight between Bethel and Aniak, located about 150 km northeast of Bethel. Troopers said an initial investigation showed an 18-year-old passenger got up from his seat and took control of the yoke before the pilot was able to regain control of the plane with the help of the passengers.
The man told Trooper Jason Bohac that he was trying to end his life while on the plane, indicating that he had spoken to behavioral health officials before, but felt it had not helped, according to a statement from Bohac that followed attacks and attempted assaults.
Cessna Caravan had six people on board with all five passenger seats occupied, said Austin McDaniel, a spokesman for troops. The plane landed safely in Aniak and the 18-year-old was arrested, troopers said.
McDaniel said via email that the man “had asked the pilot to fly the plane earlier in the flight and initially asked to sit in the vacant co-pilot seat. Both requests were denied by the pilot. ”
McDaniel said the plane had no barrier between the rest of the plane and the pilot and co-pilot seats. Barriers are not typical of this type of aircraft in Alaska, he said.
The plane was about to land when the incident took place approx. 8 miles from the airport, McDaniel said.
Federal authorities were also notified, he said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alaska said any federal charges will be determined by the outcome of the investigation. The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement that it was aware of the incident and the investigation.
According to the statement, the pilot, who was identified as Joshua Kersch, about 15 km from Aniak, said the man asked if he could fly the plane and Kersch refused. About five miles later, Kersch said he felt the yoke move forward and saw the man over the co-pilot seat push on the yoke. He said he thought the man was trying to point the plane at the ground.
Kersch said he was scared and worried about the others on board, but said his biggest concern was trying to maintain control of the plane, according to the statement.
Several passengers who spoke to Bohac said they feared for their lives. A passenger, identified as Alice Samuelson, told Bohac that the man appeared to have anxiety before boarding the plane.
During the incident, she said a woman grabbed the man after the pilot pushed him away from the controls and that the passengers held him down, according to the affidavit.
Another passenger described the man holding his seat while the pilot landed, the statement said.
Lee Ryan, president of Ryan Air, the company that operated the flight, said the passenger “was in the second row of seats and just reached beyond the co-pilot seat and briefly seized control of the plane.”
The pilot moved the passenger back and took control of the plane again, Ryan said.
“Other passengers, I would say detained the unruly passenger. But he was not necessarily trying to do anything at the time, ”Ryan said.
Ryan said the pilot handled the matter “very professionally.”
“We have different types of training and safety training and different procedures, and he said he just moved him back and landed with no further incidents, got on the radio and let our company know what was going on,” Ryan said.
He said safety is the airline’s top priority and he was pleased that “this ended without further incident.”
Changes can occur as a result of what happened, Ryan said.
“All airlines share information when it comes to safety, and I think collectively there may be some safety improvements that come out of this,” he said.