PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — An Oregon man who FBI agents say was angling for frequent flier miles has made his first court appearance on a charge of interfering with a commercial jetliner crew by filling out a comment card that talked about crashing into the ocean.
Federal authorities charged 56-year-old Joseph Hedlund Johnson of Salem after a Hawaiian Airlines jetliner turned back in midflight Wednesday to return to Portland — accompanied by two F-15 military jets.
The pilot said he was alarmed because Johnson wanted to be near his carry-on luggage and filled out a comment card that wondered “what if the plane ripped apart in mid-flight,” an FBI affidavit said.
Johnson told an agent the card was intended as a joke and, because it was sealed, not to be read during the flight.
“He told me that he thought the card was going to be taken back to an office somewhere, opened, and everyone in the room would ‘get a laugh’ from it, and that perhaps he’d even get some frequent flyer miles out of it,” FBI agent Michael Torphy wrote in an affidavit.
Authorities said they found no link between Johnson and terrorists, nor any dangerous devices on him or in his luggage.
The concern over airline security has intensified since an attempt on Christmas Day to blow up a Northwest Airlines jet bound for Detroit. Citing that, the acting U.S. attorney for Oregon, Kent Robinson, said “everyone who flies should also know that communicating with a flight crew about crashing airplanes will not be viewed as a joke.”
In a brief hearing Monday, Johnson got a public defender. He has not entered a plea. He is to be back in court next week.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis Hubel warned Johnson not to fail to show up when scheduled.
“You do have a record of not appearing when you are supposed to in court,” Hubel told him. “You’re going to make your problem a lot bigger if you don’t appear.”
Hubel didn’t elaborate. Public records show Johnson has a record of assault and theft convictions dating to 1995. Calls to authorities in Salem for details of his court record were not immediately returned.
The comment card also contained references to the 1960s TV sitcom “Gilligan’s Island,” about a group of castaways on an island in the Pacific.
Reproduced in the affidavit, the card reads: “… I hope we don’t crash and burn or worse yet, landing in the ocean, living through it, only to be eaten by sharks, or worse yet, end up on someplace like gilligans Island, stranded, or worse yet, be eaten by a tribe of headhunters … ”
Johnson told the FBI he has hepatitis C and other diseases, is disabled and has only Social Security benefits for income.