omments about 'Gilligan's Island' net 56-year-old Salem man on flight a felony charge
By Helen Jung, The Oregonian
January 08, 2010, 7:29PM
Joseph H. Johnson told investigators he thought Hawaiian Airlines would "get a laugh" from his musings on a comment card about an air crash and being stranded somewhere with the Mrs. Thurston Howell III character from the "Gilligan's Island" TV show.
Instead, the comments, as well as his annoyance over not being able to stow his carry-on bag nearby, are resulting in a felony charge of interfering with a flight crew member for the 56-year-old Salem man.
Johnson and his girlfriend were among 231 passengers headed to Maui on Hawaiian Airlines Flight 39 Wednesday morning. But after reading Johnson's comment card and talking with the crew, the pilot decided to turn the 767-300 back to Portland International Airport.
Authorities scrambled two F-15 fighter jets to shadow the airliner back to Portland.
Johnson, who could not be reached for comment, was expected to turn himself in on Monday, according to the U.S. Attorney's office in Portland.
The felony charge carries a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. His girlfriend, who was sitting next to him on the flight, was not charged.
"The safety and security of airline travel is of paramount importance, particularly following the events of Christmas Day," acting U.S. Attorney Kent Robinson said in a statement, referring to the alleged attempted bombing of an airplane by a Nigerian man. "And everyone who flies should also know that communicating with a flight crew about crashing airplanes will not be viewed as a joke."
According to the complaint and affidavit, Johnson first attracted attention because he wanted to put his carry-on bag directly below his seat, which interfered with the passenger behind him. Because he was seated in a bulkhead row, there was no storage in front and the overhead bin was full.
After a passenger made space for him in the bin behind, he then read some magazines. After about 45 minutes, the affidavit said he submitted a sealed comment card to a flight attendant who opened it and read it. The card said:
"I thought I was going to die, we were so high up, I thought to myself: I hope we don't crash and burn or worse yet, landing in the ocean, living through it, only to be eaten by sharks, or worse yet end up on someplace like Gilligan's Island, stranded, or worse yet, be eaten by a tribe of headhunters, speaking of headhunters, why do they just eat outsiders and not the family members? strange... and what if the plane ripped apart in mid-flight and we plumited (sic) to earth, landed on Gilligan's Island and then lived through it and the only woman there was Mrs. Thurston Howell III? No Mary anne (my favorite) no ginger, just lovey! If it were just her, I think I'd opt for the sharks, maybe the headhunters."
Two flight attendants noted that Johnson was calm and quiet for much of the flight. An attendant also noted that despite the initial luggage flap, he did not raise his voice and ultimately stowed the bag in a bin behind him.
The pilot, however, "absolutely felt threatened by the contents of the card," the affidavit said. After talking with his corporate office and crew, the pilot decided to turn the plane around, telling passengers that there were "mechanical issues."
Johnson has a number of offenses on his record, including fourth-degree assault, criminal mistreatment and harassment. Johnson told investigators that he has medical problems.
The incident, which the airline considered a "low-level" risk, sparked authorities to scramble two F-15 fighter jets to escort the flight back. Commanders with North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which guards against air attacks, made the decision. The agency determines on a case by case basis whether jets should be scrambled, a spokesman said.
The jets could be required to monitor, shadow, divert from flight path, direct to land -- and if deemed necessary -- shoot down the airliner to preserve homeland security, said a spokesman.
A similar incident took place Friday when NORAD scrambled two F-16 jets to escort an AirTran Airways flight that was diverting to Colorado Springs. In that incident, an apparently drunk passenger on board had locked himself in the restroom. The plane landed without incident.
-- Helen Jung