By David Patch and Wynne Everett
TORONTO — Fighter jets based at Toledo Express Airport escorted a Canadian charter flight back to the Toronto airport Friday after a passenger threatened to blow up the plane, authorities said.
The F-16 fighter jets from the Ohio Air National Guard 180th Fighter Wing were already in the air on a training mission when they were dispatched about 8:20 a.m. to escort Sunwing Airlines Flight 772 to Toronto, said Preston Schlachter, a spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
Mr. Schlachter said he did not know how long the Toledo-based fighters were involved with the successful escort assignment. The escort was considered precautionary.
"We can be a lot of places really quickly," said Master Sgt. Beth Holliker, of the 180th. "Many times we don't know exactly what the issue is, but we respond to provide support."
Ali Shahi, 25, of Mississauga, Ont., was arrested after Flight 772 returned to Pearson International Airport and was accused of uttering threats, endangering the safety of an aircraft, and two criminal mischief charges, according to Peel Regional Police.
The passenger plane had been headed for Panama City, Panama, with 183 passengers and six crew members when the passenger became agitated, ripped up a magazine, and threatened to blow up the plane, said Janine Chapman, vice president of marketing for Sunwing.
"Anytime someone says they have a bomb, we have to take that seriously, obviously," she said.
The incident happened about 45 minutes into the flight, when the plane was over West Virginia, Ms. Chapman said.
"It caused the pilot enough concern that he turned the plane around," said Lily Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for Peel Regional Police.
Heavily armed SWAT officers from the Peel Regional police force boarded the flight after it returned to Toronto at midmorning, yelling "heads down, hands up!" as they entered the cabin, according to passenger video shown on CTV News.
A video filmed by a passenger shows people in their seats reacting with their hands up while a man, presumably Mr. Shahi, can be heard yelling near the front of the cabin.
Passengers also posted photos and reactions to Facebook. William Alphonso of Quebec posted photos of heavily armed men wearing helmets and bullet-proof vests in the aisles of the plane's cabin, along with comments such as "big fun" and "Yes, this is serious."
Fighter pilots from the 180th were among those dispatched to attempt to intercept a hijacked airplane during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Since 2008, the local air guard unit's mission has included support for NORAD and U.S. Northern Command operations, with pilots on duty around the clock at Toledo Express to scramble as needed.
The unit also responded on Dec. 25, 2009, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate plastic explosives in his underwear while on a Northwest Airlines flight from Detroit to Amsterdam, Master Sergeant Holliker said. In addition, the 180th has flown missions over Iraq and Afghanistan.
NORAD routinely calls the unit to check on small-aircraft pilots who are unresponsive to air traffic controllers or other suspicious activity, Master Sergeant Holliker said. The unit also often accompanies the President when he travels, she said.
Constable Thomas Ruttan, a spokesman for the Peel Regional Police, said that agency was notified at 8:36 a.m. that the flight was returning to Toronto. It landed without incident or injury at 9:02 and tactical officers boarded, he said.
Mr. Shahi was detained, interviewed, and charged, and remained in custody later Friday pending a bail hearing today in the Ontario Court of Justice in Brampton, Ont., Mr. Ruttan said. Brampton and Mississauga are both cities within the Regional Municipality of Peel, which borders Toronto to the west and is the location of Pearson International Airport.
The plane was searched and nothing was found, Mr. Ruttan said.
Passengers resumed their journey to Panama City on a different airplane that left Toronto at 3 p.m., he said.
Information from The Blade's news services was used in this report.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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