Pilot arrested after sneaking onto jet

A pilot is in custody after he allegedly hopped a security fence at Florida's Orlando Melbourne International Airport and boarded a passenger jet that was undergoing maintenance, an airport spokeswoman said.

Posted: Sep 21, 2018 6:07 PM
Updated: Sep 21, 2018 6:34 PM

A man was arrested after he hopped a security fence early Thursday at Florida's Orlando Melbourne International Airport and boarded a passenger jet that was undergoing maintenance, an airport spokeswoman said.

Employees working on the plane saw the man on the flight deck and told him, "Get on the ground, mister. You're in trouble," spokeswoman Lori Booker told reporters at a news conference. The workers grabbed him, held him down and took him off the aircraft, she said.

Police arrived and arrested the intruder, identified as Nishal Sankat, 22, a student at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne. He is a dual citizen of Trinidad and Tobago and Canada and had entered the United States legally, Melbourne Police Chief David Gillespie said.

Authorities said they don't know Sankat's motive. He was unarmed and carried no explosives, they said. No links to terror groups have been discovered, Gillespie said.

Sankat is being questioned at the Brevard County Jail and will be charged with trespass on airport property, burglary and attempted theft of an aircraft, said Reneè Purden, the airport police chief.

Gillespie says that Sankat is not being represented by an attorney at this time.

Employees held him down

The FBI responded to a similar incident last month when a ground service agent stole a turboprop passenger plane at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. F-15 jets were scrambled to chase the plane, which crashed on Ketron Island, between Tacoma and Olympia, killing the pilot.

Sankat parked his red sedan curbside at the main entrance to the airport terminal around 1:15 a.m. and discovered the doors were locked, Purden said.

He walked around the perimeter of the airport before jumping a fence, running across the apron and boarding the American Airlines Airbus A321, said Purden and Booker.

A maintenance supervisor and a technician were aboard the aircraft when one noticed a shadow behind him, Booker told CNN in a separate interview.

The employees asked the student to identify himself and show his badge. When the student approached the cockpit, the maintenance workers grabbed him, held him down and took him off the aircraft, she said.

Airport police arrived on the scene within two minutes and apprehended Sankat, Booker said. He tried to break away while being walked out by police but was quickly taken under control, Purden said.

The plane's engines were not operating, Booker said, but an auxiliary engine that provided air conditioning was working.

No federal charges have been filed, though the FBI is investigating.

Dual citizen

Sankat is a senior who petitioned to graduate in May 2019 from Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, according to school spokesperson Adam Lowenstein. Sankat has been a student there since 2014, Lowenstein said.

According to an FAA database, Sankat obtained a commercial pilot certificate in January and is certified to fly single-engine and multi-engine planes.

But Booker noted that Sankat is not "type-rated" to fly the plane he walked onto.

Sankat is originally from Trinidad and Tobago, a dual island nation in the Caribbean, and has a Florida driver's license, authorities said.

Sankat did have a visa to be in the United States, which expired. He later returned legally with his Canadian passport, Gillespie said.

5-hour lockdown

Orlando-Melbourne is a popular airport for overhaul and maintenance, Booker said, and it's not unusual to have as many as eight jets parked on the tarmac outside the repair center.

In addition to airport police, the Melbourne Police Department, FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force responded to the scene. Authorities searched the red sedan with a robotic arm before towing it away around 7:30 a.m. Sankat's home also was searched, Gillespie said.

The airport was on lockdown for about five hours, returning to business as usual by 7 a.m., Booker said. Only two flights were affected, she said.

"We are now a fully functioning airport," she told reporters. "We believe in this instance our security worked just fine."

The A321 was next scheduled to fly to Miami at noon Thursday. Its last flight was out of Miami on Sunday.

The airline had five jets at the maintenance center, an American Airlines spokesman said. Four of them, including the aircraft that was illegally boarded, were there for Wi-Fi issues.

American Airlines referred all other questions to the FBI, which released a statement confirming it was involved in the investigation.

CORRECTION: The headline on this story has been updated to clarify the location of the airport where the incident occurred.

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