I hardly noticed the woman sitting next to me on a recent flight into the Wasatch Front — until she lunged from her seat and grabbed me, digging her nails into my arms.
We were descending amid thunderclouds. She endured in silence the first two times the plane suddenly dropped altitude and climbed back in jerking motions, as if driving up a staircase. I had been lost in a book and unaware of her discomfort until the lunge.
As introductions go, it wasn't ideal. It did, however, break whatever spell she was under. She spent much of the rest of the flight apologizing, and I spent it assuring her it was quite all right.
The National Institute of Mental Health says 4.7 percent of the adult population in the United States suffers from panic disorders, which can be characterized as the sudden fear of disaster or losing control of a situation. As a licensed therapist told the New York Daily News this week, flying can be a problem for people prone to such things.
But does that explain why Clayton Osbon, the pilot of a JetBlue flight from New York to Las Vegas, went berserk last week, trying to bust back into the cockpit and yelling about "Iran and Israel" and "al-Qaida"?
"There are several different sides to every story," Osbon's wife, Connye, who probably is as perplexed as everyone else, told ABCNews.com. She added a plaintive, "Just keep that in mind."
Yes, Connye, we're trying to keep a lot of things in mind. Among them, the American Airlines flight attendant who recently commandeered the public address system before takeoff and rattled on about mechanical problems, 9/11, an imminent crash and the airline's bankruptcy. It was not the sort of buckle-your-seatbelt type announcement passengers have learned to sleep through. The plane returned to the gate and the attendant was removed.
Or what about the JetBlue flight attendant who fought with a passenger two years ago, then cursed everyone over the PA system before exiting the plane on an emergency chute, beer in hand?
Tuesday's outburst by Captain Osbon also had faint and eerie echoes to 1999 and First Officer Gameel al-Batouty aboard Egypt Air flight 990 from Los Angeles to Cairo. When the Captain excused himself from the cockpit for a bathroom break, al-Batouty shut down the engines and sent the Boeing 767 into an irreparable dive toward the Atlantic Ocean, saying in Egyptian Arabic, "I rely on God."
At least that's what the flight recorder indicated. All aboard died in the crash. Despite a lot of conspiracy theories, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded only that the First Officer apparently caused the crash for unknown reasons.
Would Osbon have done a similar thing if allowed back into the cockpit? Reports said he was pushing buttons and acting irrationally when the co-pilot coaxed him to leave.
So what are we to make of it all? Is there some sort of flight-induced disorder scientists have yet to pinpoint; something perhaps induced by an enclosed, pressurized atmosphere? More importantly, what can do you do if the people in charge of your flight lose it?
In the post 9/11 world, passengers seem unafraid to intervene when someone is out of sorts. People who have endured the humiliation of removing shoes, belts jewelry and other clothing and being screened by high-resolution machines that strip away whatever is left aren't about to let someone's bizarre behavior ruin their flight. Unless the TSA installs CAT-scan machines manned by trained physicians, it will be impossible to check for potentially deadly behavior patterns.9 comments on this story
Federal authorities, unmoved by any speculation about what made Osbon snap, filed criminal charges against him on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the theories continue. ABC News interviewed experts who wondered about a brain tumor or an infection, or perhaps even prescription drugs in his system or the lack of proper sleep.
Granted, such behavior is exceedingly rare in airline pilots. But, like Osbon's wife, we search for the several sides to the story in hopes of finding something that separates his behavior from anything that might also afflict us.
Pilots are, after all, human, just as everyone else aboard the plane.