#Heroes: Aviation mechanics credited with stopping man trying to steal American Airlines jet

Employees 'challenged, stopped, detained' suspect, leading to his arrest

File photo. Image: Florida Today.
File photo. Image: Florida Today.

MELBOURNE, Fla. – When an aviation technician saw someone he didn't think should be inside the American Airlines Airbus 321 plane he was working on at the Orlando-Melbourne International Airport early Thursday morning, he asked the stranger for his badge. The 22-year-old man did not have one, because he wasn't supposed to be there.

That question is the first step in security protocol, according to MLB spokeswoman Lori Booker, if someone sees a person who appears out of place in any airport. It's known as "challenge the badge."

Within two minutes of that encounter shortly after 1:25 a.m., Booker said two STS Aviation Group aviation mechanics -- a technician and a supervisor -- "challenged stopped, (and) detained" the man, identified Thursday afternoon as Florida Institute of Technology student pilot Nishal Sankat, and Melbourne police arrested him.

Sankat is charged with violation of a visa, criminal trespassing and criminal theft of an aircraft. He is a part-time Florida Institute of Technology aviation student, according to the university. He has a Florida's driver's license, is from Trinidad and Tobago and entered the United States through Canada, officials said. Here's what else we know about the suspect.

Sankat's motives are still unknown. Melbourne police, the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force are investigating the incident.

Nishal Sankat
Nishal Sankat

Booker said news of what the workers did to stop "what could have been a tragedy" has already spread. People were using the hashtag Heroes on Twitter to describe their actions.

Booker described the workers who stopped the attempted plane theft as "highly trained professionals that keep us safe" with their work on air planes, but that "today they did it in a way that I don't think they expected."

When the employee first detained Sankat, he was on the flight deck of the aircraft, attempting to get into the pilot's seat, Booker said. After being detained, he was brought to a nearby hangar where he got away and was running back to the airplane when he was captured again until police arrived, authorities said.

Sankat had completed some flight training, according to Florida Tech, but it's unclear if he could have been successful in flying the plane. Booker said if he had his commercial pilot's licenses he would have been trained to fly the aircraft.

Booker said Sankat did not start the Airbus engines and the wheels never moved.

“They are two great employees, but I’ve got a hangar full of them," STS Aviation Group President Mark Smith said of the technician and supervisor.

The aviation workers who helped capture Sankat work the overnight shift and were unavailable for interviews, officials said, because the heroes were sleeping after a long night.

Booker said Thursday evening that they were still trying to process everything that happened but they didn't consider themselves to be heroes because they felt like they were just doing what they were trained to do.

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