JUNEAU, Alaska — A passenger on a small plane bound for a tiny western Alaska community said he tried to end his life when he took control of the plane's yoke and caused it to nosedive before the pilot was able to regain control and safely land the aircraft, Alaska State Troopers said.
The incident occurred Wednesday on a flight between Bethel and Aniak, which is about 90 miles northeast of Bethel. Troopers said a preliminary investigation indicated that 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 help from passengers.
The man told Trooper Jason Bohac he tried to end his life while on the plane and indicated he had spoken with behavioral health officials before but felt it hadn't helped, according to an affidavit by Bohac that accompanied assault and attempted assault charges.
The state's online court records system showed an arraignment was held Thursday. A message seeking comment was left for the public defender agency, which is listed as representing the man.
The Cessna Caravan had six people on board, with all five passenger seats occupied, said Austin McDaniel, a troopers spokesperson. The plane landed safely in Aniak, and the 18-year-old was arrested, troopers said.
McDaniel said by email that the man “had asked the pilot to fly the plane earlier during the flight and initially asked to sit in the unoccupied co-pilot seat. Both requests were denied by the pilot.”
McDaniel said the aircraft had no barrier between the rest of the aircraft and the pilot and co-pilot seats. Barriers are not typical in this type of aircraft in Alaska, he said.
The plane was in the process of landing when the incident occurred, about 5 miles (8 kilometers) from the airport, McDaniel said.
Federal authorities also were notified, he said.
A spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office in Alaska said any federal charges would be determined by the outcome of the investigation. The Federal Aviation Administration, in a statement, said it was aware of the incident and investigating.
According to the affidavit, the pilot, who was identified as Joshua Kersch, said about 10 miles from Aniak, the man asked if he could fly the plane and Kersch refused. About five miles later, Kersch said he felt the yoke go forward and saw the man over the co-pilot seat pushing on the yoke. He said he thought the man was trying to point the plane toward the ground.
Kersch said he was scared and concerned for the others onboard but said his biggest concern was trying to maintain control of the plane, according to the affidavit.
Several passengers who spoke to Bohac said they feared for their lives. One passenger, identified as Alice Samuelson, told Bohac the man seemed 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 passengers held him down, according to the affidavit.
Another passenger described the man as being held in his seat while the pilot landed, the affidavit states.
Lee Ryan, president of Ryan Air, the company that operated the flight, said the passenger “was in the second row of seats and kind of just reached over the copilot seat and briefly grabbed control of the aircraft.”
The pilot moved the passenger back and retook control of the airplane, Ryan said.
“Other passengers I’d say restrained the unruly passenger. But he wasn’t necessarily trying to do anything at that point,” Ryan said.
Ryan said the pilot handled the matter “very professionally.”
“We have different types of training and security training and different procedures, and he said he just moved him back in and landed without further incident, got on the radio and let our company know what was going on,” Ryan said.
He said safety is the air carrier's highest priority, and he was glad "this ended without further incident.”
Changes could arise as a result of what happened, Ryan said.
“All of us airlines share information when it comes to safety, and I think that collectively there might be some safety improvements that come out of this,” he said.