MELBOURNE, Fla. - A 22-year-old flight student jumped a security fence at the Melbourne International Airport and reached the cockpit of an empty jet before two maintenance workers tackled him, investigators said.
Melbourne airport officials said that Trinidad and Tobago native Nishal Sankat breached airport security at about 1:30 a.m. Thursday and boarded a full-size American Airlines passenger jet that was undergoing maintenance.
Authorities had said earlier that the suspect was 26 years old.
Sankat parked his car outside the terminal and left it running, police said. He then ran through the grass and jumped the barbed-wire fence to gain access, officials said.
"This is a first for me. I fly out of here two to three times a year. This is an odd incident," traveler Lenny Rife said.
An airport employee saw the man enter the Airbus 321 and called airport police, who then called the Melbourne Police Department, MIA representative Lori Booker said.
Earlier this morning, the airport experienced a security incident. Authorities have cleared the scene. Only two morning flights were delayed. All airport operations are back to normal.— Orl-Melbourne Int'l (@FlyMLB) September 20, 2018
Police said Sankat was confronted by two airport maintenance workers in the cockpit. They escorted him off the plane, but he tried to run back toward the aircraft, officials said.
"They challenged the badge, and if you don't know that phrase, it means if you see someone in a secure area of the airport, you say, 'Can I see your badge please?' He did not present his badge. They followed protocol from that moment on," Booker said.
Sankat was later tackled by the workers and held on the ground near the maintenance hangar until police arrived, officials said.
"(The) Melbourne Police Department responded within two minutes, " Booker said.
The man's car was towed after a robotic device searched it, she said.
The airport was on lockdown for several hours after the incident.
Authorities said Sankat was unarmed and has no criminal record.
“As a precaution, all airport employees and passengers were removed from the property,” Booker said.
“He just wanted to go home.” That’s what roommate told us tonight about man accused of trying to steal American Airlines jet from Melbourne airport. Live coverage on #WFTVat11 @WFTV pic.twitter.com/jGWiPMS3pj— Ken Tyndall (@KenTyndallWFTV) September 21, 2018
She said officials did a sweep of the airfield before the airport was reopened. She said no passengers were in the area when Sankat boarded the plane.
Sankat was studying aviation management at the Florida Institute of Technology and had completed some flight training, school officials said. Investigators said he was not rated for the type of aircraft he is accused of trying to steal.
The Joint Terrorism Task Force, which includes the FBI, is now investigating, but Sankat already faces state charges of violation of a visa, criminal trespassing and criminal theft of an aircraft.
Sankat was in the U.S. on a Canadian passport. He holds dual citizenship in Canada and Trinidad and Tobago.
Ret. Marine Corps Col. Stephen Ganyard, an ABC News aviation expert, said the security breach could have been catastrophic.
"If the intent was to hijack the airplane, this was much more serious than Seattle," he said. "This was a much larger, much more sophisticated airplane, and there would be very little chance at 2:00 in the morning that the person who stole it would be able to land it again."
Melbourne police Chief David Gillespie said there is no evidence to indicate a connection to terrorism.
Sankat's roommate, who would not provide his name, described him as "a nice kid."
"He just wanted to go home," he said. "That's all."
Channel 9 asked police if Sankat was trying to start the plane, but they would not give a straight answer.
"He did not make it that far, so there was no attempt to be made," Melbourne airport police Chief Reneè Purden said. "He had been challenged by the employee prior to that time."
Police would not say if the employees who confronted Sankat would have been able to defend themselves had he been armed.
"The suspect -- had he been armed, it would have been something we would have had to contend with," Gillespie said.
He said Sankat is being cooperative. He is being held at the Brevard County Jail.
Florida Institute of Technology released this statement:
“Florida Institute of Technology has monitored this morning’s incident at Orlando Melbourne International Airport. The university has confirmed that the suspect from Trinidad & Tobago is a part-time Florida Tech student studying aviation management who had completed some flight training in the past.
"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.”
#Update: accoridng to @FlyMLB spokesperson the suspect got in the cockpit of this plane, was confronted by 2 maintenance workers who chased him off the A-321. He was later tackled in a nearby hangar. The workers held him down until police showed up pic.twitter.com/0sMwKw5Rc6— Q McCray (@QMcCrayWFTV) September 20, 2018
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