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Orlando Melbourne airport: Student pilot charged with attempting to steal airplane

Student accused of trying to steal plane at Orlando Melbourne airport
Credit: FLORIDA TODAY files
Though the sign doesn't say it, local officials use "Orlando Melbourne International Airport" to market the services at the Melbourne airport.
Orlando Melbourne International Airport was on lockdown Sept. 20, 2018, after a security breach. Shown is the Melbourne Police Department's crime scene van and a suspect's car.

MELBOURNE, Fla. – The 22-year-old Florida Institute of Technology student pilot suspected of jumping a fence at Orlando Melbourne International Airport and boarding a vacant American Airlines plane has been charged with a criminal attempt to steal an airplane.

Authorities also booked the unnamed man for a visa violation and criminal trespassing. 

The Joint Terrorism Task Force continues investigating the early morning incident Thursday, which happened near an aircraft hangar. 

The man – who left his car running in front of the passenger terminal – entered the plane about 2 a.m. ET, authorities reported. 

“Our employee was in the aircraft and immediately questioned him, immediately escorted him out of the airplane, and was taking him over to our main hangar facility to call the police and to deal with it. And the individual took off running," said STS Aviation Group President Mark Smith.

"The original employee plus our shift manager jumped in one of our golf carts and impeded his process from getting back to the airplane – he was heading back to the airplane," Smith said.

Lori Booker, spokeswoman for the airport, said the Melbourne Airport Police Department responded within two minutes.

The suspect is a part-time Florida Tech student from Trinidad and Tobago who is studying aviation management, and he has completed some flight training, said Adam Lowenstein, a university spokesman.

Aug. 12: Investigation continues into hijacking at Seattle-Tacoma airport: Here's what we know

Aug. 12: Family of Richard Russell, who stole airliner and crashed it, say they are 'stunned and heartbroken'

"It would be inappropriate for the university to release the suspect’s name, and law enforcement is continuing its investigation. University officials will collaborate with authorities to further review this matter. No additional information is available at this time," Lowenstein wrote in a statement.

Authorities are now trying to determine a motive and whether it was an isolated incident, Booker said. An arrest affidavit has not yet been made public. 

"The FBI is working with our state and local task force members in the ongoing investigation," said Andrea Aprea, an FBI spokeswoman in Tampa.

Technician 'saw a shadow'

President Donald Trump held rallies inside the aircraft hangar in September 2016 and February 2017. STS Aviation Group bought the facility in June 2017, then opened for business last October, Smith said.

The Airbus – large enough to hold up to 200 passengers – was out of service and blocked in by aircraft chocks to prevent movement, airport officials reported.

Authorities said the avionics technician working in the galley of the plane saw a shadow. 

"He turned around and said, 'Who are you? Show me your badge,' " Booker said.

The unnamed technician, one of four people dubbed as heroes, grabbed the man and with help from another technician, led the man off the plane. 

Booker said one of the men held the student to the ground while the other made a call to Melbourne Airport Police. The student pilot then broke free and ran along the airfield before he was taken into custody by two police officers. 

The student pilot has connections to Canada. He also has a Florida driver's license, Booker reported. It was not immediately known how long he has been in the United States.

The airport was placed on a lockdown that lasted until about 7 a.m. All flights at the airport, which handles about 500,000 passengers a year, were suspended for about five hours. Two flights from the airport were delayed. 

A car was towed by Lee’s Towing with Melbourne CSI vans in front of and behind it at about 7:15 a.m. ET. A robot used by police searched the vehicle before it was removed from the airport.

How it all began

The incident unfolded with Melbourne police tweeting early Thursday that Orlando Melbourne International Airport was temporarily closed because of "police activity."

Melbourne resident Manan Karia approached the airport about 5 a.m. on NASA Boulevard to try to catch a 6 a.m. Delta flight to Atlanta en route to Austin, Texas.

"I drove by Keiser (University) and Sears and saw a bunch of cars in both parking lots, which I thought was weird," she said. "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 could see more police cars with lights flashing around the airport.

"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."

Aug. 11: 'Insider threat': How did a Horizon Air worker manage a commercial aircraft heist?

Aug. 11: 'Suicidal' man who stole, crashed plane ID'd as 3½-year employee without pilot's license

Karia and a group of fellow passengers drove from the Keiser University parking lot shortly after 7 a.m., then entered the airport. 

"It was the longest security line I can remember seeing in Melbourne," Karia said.

In the spotlight

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

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.

Booker said security training helped prepare the officers and the staff for their response to the breach.

Greg Donovan, the executive director of the airport, talked to the maintenance workers who confronted the man.

"I want you to know how very grateful we are for your heroic actions and quick thinking," Donovan told the men, according to Booker. 

Contributing: Jennifer Sangalang and Tyler Vazquez, Florida Today. Follow J.D. Gallop, Malcolm Denemark and Rick Neale on Twitter: @JDGallop, @malcolmdenemark and @RickNeale1