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Crisis in the Sky: Mental Illness and Airline Travel

January 2006

Following the shooting death of Rigoberto Alizar in Miami by air marshals during a psychiatric crisis, NAMI consumers and family members have discussed potential precautions to take during travel.   In the following article, NAMI Indiana's Steve Coburn shares his son's experience on an airplane in 2001.

On Monday October 8, 2001, less than a month after 9/11, our son Ted, on a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago, stormed the cockpit of the airplane, believing that terrorists were going to crash the plane into the Sears Tower.

He was lucky.   He is alive.

The Miami tragedy demonstrates that disruptive behavior on an airplane, train, or bus can have fatal consequences and highlights the continuing need for effective training of flight crews and air marshals in dealing with passengers with mental illness in crisis on airplanes.   (Read NAMI's statement in response to the Miami tragedy

Our son graduated near the top of his class from Purdue University with a degree in electrical engineering technology.  He had been working as an industrial controls engineer in California for seven years.  On Monday, October 1, 2001, we received a telephone call from our son saying that we should watch the movie The Matrix, and that if necessary, we should watch it repeatedly until we understood it.  Late Thursday evening, we received a call that the world was coming to an end and that Ted was the savior of the world.  On Friday, he returned to a friend's apartment and she was able to get him admitted to a mental health facility on a 72-hour commitment. 

I arrived in California late Friday afternoon.   As we approached the entrance of the mental health facility, two police officers asked if we were coming to visit Ted.   They reported that he had had a very violent outburst.  On Sunday, the psychiatrist called to say that he was ready to release Ted, who had consistently refused medication.  When I asked whether we should fly or drive back to Indiana, he recommended flying.

Since this was our first exposure to serious mental illness, we had no idea what questions we should ask or what we should expect.

Shortly after the flight from Los Angeles to Chicago began, Ted said that we must study the safety card carefully because the plane was going to crash into the water.  I knew immediately that we had a serious problem and alerted a flight attendant of the situation.  They said they would put some blankets in the seat next to Ted (which they did) and that if I needed help, I should push the call button repeatedly and they would come to help restrain him.  As the flight progressed, Ted's delusion changed from crashing into the water to terrorists taking over the plane and crashing into the Sears Tower.  Initially, he said that we would not have to do anything until the terrorists caused a commotion in the cabin.  Eventually, he said there would not be a commotion because one of the pilots was a terrorist.  Ted believed he needed to get into the cockpit to make sure everything was normal.  At that point I knew I needed help.  I pushed the call button repeatedly, but no one came.  Ted made a run for the cockpit, before being tackled and restrained by the flight crew and passengers. 

At Ted's trial, the statement from the flight crew indicated that they heard the bell, but there was no explanation as to why no one came to help.  If the crew had followed the original plan, we could have kept him in his seat.   We were told very bluntly that if there had been an air marshal on our flight, Ted would have been shot without hesitation. 

Upon removing Ted from the airplane, the F.B.I. said that prior to 9/11 he would have been sent to a psychiatric hospital.  However, in response to 9/11 he was placed in the criminal justice system and charged with interfering with a flight crew, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

During the next ten months, Ted continued to refuse medication.  He was subjected to four psychiatric evaluations to determine whether he was competent to stand trial.   All agreed he was mentally ill but differed on his competency.  The fourth evaluation concluded that he would never be competent without medication.   At that point, the judge ordered medication.

Ted responded well.  It took another ten months to hold the trial, at which he was judged not guilty by reason of insanity.  He was given a two-year conditional release which required that he cooperate with all aspects of his treatment, report to a probation officer, and obtain permission for any travel outside Indiana.

Six months after being released, Ted returned to work as an industrial controls engineer with a small company whose owner was familiar with Ted's history.

Our family would like to publicly acknowledge that even though severe manic episodes resulted in several stays in seclusion ("the hole"), we felt Ted received competent and compassionate treatment in the Federal prison system.  On two occasions, when we arrived for visits during Ted's serious episodes, staff at the facilities in Chicago and Rochester, Minnesota, made special arrangements for us to visit.  When it became apparent that being in Chicago seemed to precipitate serious incidents, the staff at Rochester arranged to conduct the court hearings and trial via closed circuit television, so that Ted could remain in Rochester and still participate in the Chicago proceedings.

Based on our experiences, I would make the following suggestions:

  • Families need to be informed about the nature of their relative's illness.  This was our first exposure to mental illness.  I thought Ted might annoy passengers by talking about religion.  I was totally unprepared for delusions about terrorists taking over the airplane.  In our case, the psychiatrist specifically recommended that we should fly rather than drive back to Indiana from California, even though Ted was being released without medication from a 72-hour involuntary commitment, after 48 hours during which he had damaged the facility.
  • Families need guidance on how to decide whether a relative should travel on public transportation, especially where they may encounter armed marshals.   They need to know what precautions to take and how best to manage a crisis.

Putting disruptive passengers with mental illness into the criminal justice system adds legal and financial complications to the situation.  We purchased a handbook on dealing with the criminal justice system.  In the section on legal costs, it said that while the costs would depend on the individual case, you could be sure that a criminal defense will cost more than most people are ready to pay.  In our case, the most highly recommended lawyer wanted a retainer of $50,000 and said if expert psychiatric testimony was required, the cost could easily exceed $100,000.   We selected a different attorney and were able to keep Ted's defense under $50,000.

Being convicted of a felony also imposes consequences which remain long after any prison time has been served.  Even though Ted was not convicted and received good reports from his psychiatrist, probation officer, and employer, the judge was not willing to eliminate court supervision at the end of the two-year conditional release in August 2005.  Ted returns to court in August 2006 for further review.

We want to acknowledge the tremendous support provided by NAMI.  Suzanne Andriukaitis, Executive Director of the Chicago affiliate, accompanied us to one of the first court hearings.  As a result of the extensive media coverage of the incident, two people from the Fort Wayne affiliate called to offer our family support.  We accepted their offer and have missed very few meetings since then.  It was a real life saver for us.  We attended a Family to Family class and then completed the training to teach Family to Family and Provider Education courses.  Ted has become active in the NAMI consumer group.  We hope that NAMI can find ways to prevent further violent reactions to persons with mental illness in crisis on public transportation. 

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In 2002, former Dallas Cowboys tackle Alonzo Spellman was flying home from Las Vegas to Philadelphia, accompanied by his mother, for treatment following a lengthy psychiatric crisis.  His actions during the flight terrorized passengers, but because of his intimidating size, police showed restraint and chose not to try to arrest him in the airport. Instead, Spellman was allowed to proceed home, where he was arrested the next day. He was sentenced to prison, then released subject to continued treatment. For sensitive, balanced reporting of his story that received a NAMI Outstanding Media Award, see the   Philadelphia Daily News, "The Brutal Trip Down: A tale about Alonzo Spellman, his illness, and a terrifying flight that landed him in jail," by Mark Kram (February 27, 2003).