FBI: Student pilot who tried to steal jet at airport planned to harm himself

MELBOURNE, Fla. (WESH) - A student pilot who tried to steal a jet at Orlando Melbourne International Airport on Thursday had planned to harm himself, according to the FBI.

Nishal Sankat, a 22-year-old student at the Florida Institute of Technology, was charged with criminal attempt to steal an airplane, a visa violation and criminal trespassing.

Sankat drove to the curb outside the Orlando Melbourne International Airport around 2 a.m. Thursday, left his car running, hopped a fence and boarded the American Airlines jet, airport spokeswoman Lori Booker said. The jet was parked in a maintenance area. A maintenance worker spotted Sankat and police took him into custody a couple of minutes later.

"(The maintenance worker) saw a shadow behind him, turned, and challenged the badge, as we discussed earlier, and was not satisfied with the response," Booker said.

A badge, Booker said, allowed those with access into the secured area. Sankat did not have one.

Booker said officials conducted a sweep of the airfield before re-opening the airport. In addition, all employees and passengers were removed from the terminal during the incident. It caused two flight delays and interrupted airport operations for about five hours.

A senior aircraft pilot said Sankat could not have stolen the plane because it must have an auxiliary power unit and other ground support hooked up in order for the engines to start.

Police conducted a search of Sankat’s car with a robotic arm to make sure there were no explosives, Booker said. The car was then towed from the airport.

Police, the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force are involved in the investigation, according to Booker.

"At this time there is no evidence to indicate a connection to terrorism," Chief David Gillespie, Chief of Police Melbourne Police Department, said. 

Gillespie said Sankat had no weapons or explosives on him.

Sankat, who was born in Trinidad and entered the United States legally through Canada, was taken to the Brevard County Jail. Booker said Sankat has a Florida driver’s license.

Florida Tech officials confirmed that he was a part-time student at the school and was studying aviation management. He had completed some flight training in the past, school officials said.

Sankat stood in front of a judge Friday for his court hearing, at one point appearing to nod off. Sankat seemed puzzled or confused at points in the hearing and was unable to answer questions from the judge.

Special Agent Joseph Hacker called Sankat a threat to the community in general.

"(Sankat) advised us that he intended to harm himself, and in that process had no regard for the potentiality of harming others in the process," Hacker said.

Hacker emphasized that Sankat's alleged plan to harm himself included stealing the airplane, but he left unsaid how that harm would come to Sankat or the public.

Sankat is being held without bond.

The airport has returned to normal operations.


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