SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
Imagine spending six months in an overseas deployed location and finally receiving the call to come home.
With bags packed and plane ticket in hand, the thought of being able to finally see your loved ones once again would lift the spirits of any military service member.
But what happens when safety concerns arise on your flight home?
For four defenders from the 50th Security Forces Squadron, this was their reality.
But waiting any longer to see their loved ones was not an option.
Staff Sgts. James Wulf and Joshua Kennedy, then Staff Sgt. Joseph Potalivo (Potalivo has since separated from the Air Force) and Senior Airman Brett Pointer, 50 SFS members, were returning from deployments on American Airlines Flight 1506, Feb. 4, 2016, on a connecting flight from Baltimore/Washington International Airport to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
At first, everything seemed fine, but roughly 1½ hours into the flight, the defenders noticed one passenger began acting belligerent.
“He started standing up, raising his arms, (using) more of an outside voice,” said Kennedy. “He was definitely talking over people. The people sitting next to him were saying ‘you need to calm down.’ It was like a slow-moving train wreck with this guy.”
He repeated these outbursts several times and the situation escalated. It became apparent the passenger was heavily intoxicated, as he attempted to purchase more alcohol. When he was cut-off, he became aggressive and resorted to stealing liquor bottles off the cart.
“You could tell everyone was paying attention to him. When you’re on an airplane, obviously safety is a huge concern. Tensions were growing and you could tell the mood was growing more serious as he became more vocal and obnoxious,” said Pointer.
“He was very disruptive and was actually verbally sexually assaulting the female passenger right next to him. That’s when we basically got involved,” said Wulf.
A captain who was also returning from deployment was the first military member near the altercation who tried to calm the passenger down. However the passenger continued yelling obscenities and acting out of control.
As the passenger continued to yell and engage in aggressive behavior, the flight crew cautioned the flight would have to be diverted and emergency landed if he didn’t calm down. At that point, Potalivo caught Pointer on his way to the restroom and cautioned him to tell the other two defenders to be ready in case action needed to be taken.
As the situation worsened and an impending violent situation developed between passengers and the drunk individual, Potalivo approached a flight attendant to offer assistance to the pilot.
He relayed to the pilot, “If you need help, we can help you. We are security forces for the Air Force. I have three other individuals on board who are cops. We can handle the situation if you want us to.”
“Essentially the pilot told us to do whatever it takes so we can land the plane safely,” said Potalivo.
The defenders were given the green light.
Slowly, the uniformed members converged on where the passenger was and politely asked those sitting around him if they would like to exchange seats. Of course, no one had any issues with it.
With everyone in position, Kennedy quickly applied compliance techniques from behind the individual. Wulf, Potalivo and another uniformed member sitting next to the individual restrained him from the sides and front. Pointer provided over watch and backed up the defenders in case they needed anything else.
Using zip ties they received from the flight crew, the Airmen were able to restrain him, and successfully put the unruly passenger back in his seat, while calmly speaking to him.
“Once we got (the zip ties) on, we of course had to check them and make sure they weren’t too tight. That was a hassle because he was fighting back even after they were on,” said Kennedy.
The individual wrestled and spit at the defenders until about 45 minutes from landing, where he fell asleep for a few minutes. However, the defenders’ struggle wasn’t over, as the individual woke up and began to spit and vomit profusely.
“It was gross and uncomfortable,” said Pointer. “I think we were all disgusted but relieved that the situation was under control.”
Despite the unsanitary circumstances, the plane landed safely. Authorities quickly boarded the plane and grabbed the individual to take him off. The Airmen followed directly after to give statements to the authorities and wash off.
However, the defenders didn’t escape without a standing ovation from the cabin.
“With all the experience we have, (our response) just kind of flowed. We weren’t worried about anyone else really saying ‘good job’ and all that stuff. We were there, we did our job as if we were still on base and it feels good to know we were able to help out,” said Wulf.
With time ticking on their 40-minute layover, the defenders made a mad dash to their connecting flights, all in hopes to get back to their loved ones.
Lt. Col. Molly Spedding, 50 SFS commander, explained her defenders’ acts were not an obligation, but a courageous choice.
“Unlike civil law enforcement personnel, who are obligated to deal with such situations, military security forces do not have that same obligation,” said Spedding. “They didn’t hesitate, they acted within the line of authority they were given. But the biggest takeaway talking to them was how much they wanted to be able to effect change to bring the temperature of that situation down so that people didn’t have to feel threatened or in danger or scared or unsafe. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
As for the defenders, they are all just happy to be back home. They also now have a rare addition to their future resumes.
“We may have a future in being air marshals,” Kennedy smiled.