Pilot accused of threatening to shoot airline captain midflight to SLC is to make first court appearance
Jan 4, 2024, 3:51 PM
(AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A co-pilot accused of threatening to shoot the captain for diverting their flight for a passenger’s medical emergency was set to make his first federal court appearance Thursday.
Former Delta Air Lines pilot Jonathan J. Dunn, 42, was indicted by a grand jury Oct. 18 and charged with interfering with a flight crew during a trip from Atlanta to Salt Lake City in August 2022.
Dunn, who was the first officer, or co-pilot, threatened to shoot the captain during a heated argument in the cockpit over whether to change course to accommodate a passenger’s medical issue.
The captain had proposed diverting their commercial flight to Grand Junction, Colorado, if the passenger’s condition worsened, the U.S. Attorney’s Office alleges in court documents. Dunn objected and threatened multiple times to shoot the captain, whom he accused of “going crazy,” the documents state. Dunn could face up to 20 years in prison.
Dunn later acknowledged threatening the captain but said his remarks were intended as a joke, according to new court documents detailing the altercation. The captain did not perceive the threats as a joke and told authorities that he was concerned Dunn would use his firearm to “relieve” him of command of the aircraft.
The new court documents reveal that Dunn seemed to recognize the gravity of his actions, telling Delta officials, “This could have been much worse. In hindsight if I had been threatened, I would not be able to operate.”
Dunn, of Rapid City, South Dakota, had been authorized by the Transportation Security Administration to carry a firearm on board. The TSA has since revoked that authority, and Delta says Dunn no longer works for the airline.
The program authorizing some pilots to carry guns on domestic flights emerged as an security measure after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, said Ross Aimer, an aviation expert and the CEO of Aero Consulting Experts. After the government realized it would be too expensive to have an air marshal on every flight, it allowed pilots such as Dunn to volunteer for a training program to become federal flight deck officers.
Participating pilots must be vetted and attend the training course at a federal law enforcement center in New Mexico before they’re authorized to carry a gun on board, according to the TSA. And all pilots undergo regular medical exams in which they’re required to disclose whether they have depression or anxiety, as well as their use of medications, drugs and alcohol.
“There are extensive protocols attached to how you carry this weapon,” Aimer said of officers’ training. “You’re not supposed to take it out of the cockpit, or even out of the holster, unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
All commercial pilots, he said, receive training on how to calmly settle disagreements and are required to immediately report if a colleague is showing signs of any concerning behavior.
The altercation occurred on the last leg of a three-day cross-country rotation that Dunn and the captain, who is not named in court documents, completed together. The captain reported having problems with Dunn questioning his decisions throughout the entire rotation and attempting to be, what he called a “right-seat captain.”
The Associated Press sent an email to Dunn’s attorney Thursday seeking comment.
Dunn is an Air Force Reserve lieutenant colonel who was demoted from his previous position for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine. The Air Force suspended his access to sensitive information and to the air operations center because of the midflight altercation, a spokesperson said.
His indictment came a few days before an off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot riding in a cockpit jump seat tried, midflight, to shut off the engine of a Horizon Air jet. Joseph David Emerson, who told police he was suffering from depression and had taken psychedelic mushrooms, was subdued by the captain and co-pilot and arrested after the plane diverted to Portland, Oregon. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder in an Oregon state court.
This story has been edited to correct that Rapid City is in South Dakota, not North Dakota.