Florida Tech student pilot tried to steal American Airlines jet, officials say

Aviation mechanics credited with stopping 22-year-old from stealing Airbus jet

By Daniel Dahm - Digital Manager, Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

MELBOURNE, Fla. - A Florida Institute of Technology student pilot faces several charges, including criminal attempt to steal an airplane, after authorities said he jumped a fence and boarded an American Airlines jet early Thursday at Orlando Melbourne International Airport.

Melbourne police, the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force are investigating the incident, which took place in a maintenance area at 1 Air Terminal Parkway and forced authorities to close the airport.

Authorities identified the suspect as 22-year-old Nishal Sankat. Sankat, who has a Florida's driver's license, is from Trinidad and Tobago and entered the United States through Canada, airport spokeswoman Lori Booker said. Officials initially said the suspect was 26 years old.

Brevard County Sheriff's Office

Booking photo of Nishal Sankat (photo courtesy of the Brevard County Sheriff's Office)

Florida Tech officials later identified Sankat as a part-time student who's studying aviation management at the Melbourne university. He had completed some flight training, according to Florida Tech.

"Law enforcement is continuing its investigation," Florida Tech officials said in a statement. "University officials will collaborate with authorities to further review this matter."

According to Booker, Sankat parked curbside at the airport at 1:25 a.m., left his car running and jumped a fence before boarding an Airbus 321.

Two aviation mechanics -- a technician and a supervisor -- were on the plane and tackled Sankat when he wouldn't show them a badge allowing him to be on the aircraft, Booker said. Sankat was attempting to get into the pilot's seat on the flight deck when he was detained, she said.

"If you see somebody within a secure area, you ask to see their badge, and he did not have a badge," Booker said.

Nishal Sankat

One of the workers called police while the other held Sankat, Booker said. The workers took him into a nearby hangar. Sankat was able to get free and started running back toward the aircraft. The  aviation mechanics chased after Sankat in a golf cart, cutting him off and holding him again until police arrived and arrested him, according to Booker.

"What I said to him was, 'Get on the ground, mister, you're in trouble,'" Booker said one of the employees told the suspect.

Sankat was taken into custody about two minutes after police were called, Booker said. He did not have any weapons. Officials said Thursday evening that there is no indication that Sankat had any ties to any terrorist organizations.

Booker described the STS Aviation Group mechanics who stopped the attempted plane theft as "highly trained professionals that keep us safe" every day adding that "today they did it in a way that I don't think they expected."

Sankat is charged with criminal attempt to steal an airplane, a visa violation and criminal trespassing. His motive is still unknown at this point, Booker said, and he is under intense interrogation at the Brevard County Jail facility.

It wasn't immediately known if the plane, which can hold about 200 passengers, was fueled, according to officials.

The car left abandoned by Sankat was searched by robots before being towed away, Booker said.

The airport, which handles about 500,000 passengers a year, was evacuated and authorities conducted a security sweep of the entire airport, which reopened about five hours later, according to Booker.

Two flights were delayed because of the incident, Booker said.

Melbourne resident Manan Karia told News 6 partner Florida Today that he approached the airport about 5 a.m. on NASA Boulevard to try to catch a 6 a.m. Delta flight to Austin, Texas.

"I drove by Keiser and Sears and saw a bunch of cars in both parking lots, which I thought was weird. I get to the airport, and there is a line about five cars deep, and a police officer has the entrance blocked with his car and lights are flashing. You can see more police cars with lights flashing around the airport," Karia said. 

"I finally get up to the officer, and he proceeds to tell me the airport is shut down and asks if I’m an employee or a passenger. I let him know I’m a passenger, and he tells me to go park at the Keiser parking lot. That’s all the info they provided," Karia said. "I was just scouring Twitter and the internet trying to get more after that."

Thursday’s security breach was thwarted quickly, unlike some recent incidents that drew national attention.

Booker said the employees who stopped the plane theft are being praised for their quick thinking preventing "what could have been a tragedy."

Last month at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, an apparently suicidal Horizon Air luggage handler entered the cockpit of an unoccupied Bombardier Q400 turboprop, took off and flew for an hour before crashing into Ketron Island.

The investigation is ongoing.

Check back for updates on this developing story.

 

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