It should have been a routine New York-Las Vegas flight last March 27.
The passengers of the Jet Blue flight (most of whom were traveling to the 2012 International Security Conference, ironically enough) were startled to see pilot Clayton Osbon running through the aisle screaming "say your prayers" as well as various threats relating to 9/11, al Qaeda, Iraq and Afghanistan. After having been locked out of the cabin cockpit due to his attempting to interfere with the plane's controls, the pilot was eventually wrestled to the ground and forcibly restrained by several of the passengers. The plane then made an emergency landing in Amarillo, Texas. Although one flight attendant's ribs were bruised, no one on board the plane was seriously injured.
Following the incident, Jet Blue Airlines representatives were at a loss to explain the 49-year old pilot's behaviour. Captain Osbon, a veteran pilot with no history of psychiatric problems was later charged with interference with a flight crew. Following a recent hearing, Clayton Osbon was declared not guilty by reason of insanity. During the course of the hearing, the court heard from testimony provided by fellow crew members who said that the pilot showed up at the airport unusually late for the flight. They also added that his bizarre behaviour did not begin until the plane was in midflight. The first officer became alarmed when Captain Osbon began rambling about sins in Las Vegas and that the plane would not reach its destination. The situation escalated after he was locked out of the cockpit and "aggressively" confronted crew members who attempted to restrain him. The court also heard testimony from a psychologist, Robert E.H. Johson who determined that the defendant's actions on board the Jet Blue flight was due to a "brief psychotic disorder" resulting from sleep deprivation. Dr. Johnson added in his report that the defendant;s psychotic behaviour lasted about a week following the March 27 incident. The U.S. Attorney's office did not dispute the psychological assessment report although a Jet Blue spokesperson argued that the pilot had sufficient off-time and that their scheduling did not cause the incident.
Despite the not guilty verdict, Jet Blue is facing lawsuits from at least ten of the passengers on board the March 27 flight who maintain that the airline was "grossly negligent" in allowing the pilot to fly and that they feared for their lives due to his actions. The Federal Aviation Authority is also reviewing the case to determine whether current guidelines concerning the amount of rest that a pilot should have between flights is enough to prevent problems. While new guidelines are set to go into effect next years requiring a minimum 10-hour rest period for pilots (up from the current eight to nine hours required at present), questions about what happened aboard that flight still remain.
But can sleep deprivation cause a psychotic breakdown? Along with documented cases of extreme manic behaviour and delirious psychosis resulting from sleep loss, research studies have shown a consistent link between sleep deprivation and impaired cognitive and emotional functioning. A 2007 study by a team of Princeton researchers has indicated that lack of sleep can impact the limbic system of the brain and interfere with the body's ability to form new memories. The researchers also found that sleep-deprived animals had higher levels of stress-related hormones and significantly fewer new brain cells in the hypothalamus. Research has also found that the effects of sleep deprivation are typically cumulative, i.e., one night of lost sleep is harmless but two or more nights of lost sleep can have a dramatic impact on cognitive functioning and response inhibition. While the effects of sleep deprivation are usually temporary, long-term sleep deprivation has been linked to chronic mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, mood disorders, and manic episodes. Conidering the devastating impact that lack of sleep can have, it's probably not surprising that sleep deprivation is an effective interrogation method (with numerous court trials held to determine whether it can be considered a form of torture).
As for Captain Clayton Osbon, he remains in a psychiatric hospital pending his final sentencing hearing in early August. His fate, and the question of how similar incidents can be prevented in future, is still very much up in the air.