He was so young when he started flying airplanes he put telephone books on the seat so he could see over the instrument panel.
By his own estimates, Clayton Osbon has logged more than 18,000 flying hours, all over the world.
Growing up in the Midwest, he dreamed of becoming an astronaut or a "Top Gun"-type fighter pilot. More recently, he spoke of his desire to become a motivational speaker.
By most accounts, Osbon, 49, was an easygoing, accomplished pilot -- until he suffered a midair meltdown Tuesday onboard JetBlue Flight 191, bound for Las Vegas from Kennedy Airport.
Locked out of the cockpit and ranting about al-Qaida and the "Lord's prayer," Osbon had to be subdued by passengers as the co-pilot made an emergency landing.
"He was always kind of happy-go-lucky. He was not a wacko," said a friend, Mary Lou Capace, who lives next door to the building in South Ozone Park, Queens, where Osbon rents an apartment for his New York stays.
"How does this happen?" said Wanda Serra, the owner of the building. "He was an ace pilot. It's unbelievable."
JetBlue chief executive Dave Barger told NBC's "Today" show Wednesday that Obson was a "consummate professional."
"I've known the captain personally for a long period of time," Barger said. "There's been no indication of this at all in the past."
Osbon, who lives in Richmond Hill, Ga., is a flight standards captain, meaning he teaches and evaluates standard operating procedures for a specific fleet. He joined JetBlue in 2000, shortly after the airline was created, a spokeswoman said.
Before then, he piloted a Gulfstream IV -- a luxurious business jet -- around the world, living in Portugal and France for several years, he said in a story published last year by a lifestyle magazine in his hometown.
"Gulfstream pilots are very proud to fly Gulfstreams," he told Richmond Hill Reflections. "If you're going to finish your career or get to the top of the ladder as a corporate pilot, Gulfstream would be one of those plateaus. You'd say to yourself, 'I've arrived.' "
Christine S. Lucas, who interviewed Osbon for the magazine, was stunned by Tuesday's incident.
"He seemed like a happy guy doing what he loves for a living. I find it terribly sad," she said.
Osbon, a Milwaukee native, studied aeronautical physics at Hawthorne College and Carnegie Mellon University. He told Lucas he started flying at the age of 6 or 7.
"I've been instrument flying since before I could see over the dashboard -- sitting on phone books eventually," he said in the interview.
The first plane he flew, he said, belonged to his father, an electrical engineer.
Osbon said he was once offered a slot in the "Top Gun" Officer Candidate School -- the Navy's prestigious training school for elite pilots -- but was disqualified because of a minor eye problem.
He went on to a career in commercial aviation that included flying the Gulfstream until he joined JetBlue and started piloting an Airbus 320.
He and his wife, Connye, who runs a massage therapy business, have lived in Richmond Hill near Savannah since 1997.
In his free time, Osbon flies his own L-4 Grasshopper -- a lightweight, single-propeller observation aircraft, he told the magazine.
He said he was thinking about how he could use the plane to benefit local charities, and expressed a desire to become a motivational speaker.
"It starts with a greater enhanced knowledge of one's being," he said. "You know, I'd like to think the world is more than just getting up in the morning, making a cup of coffee, going to work, coming home, kissing your wife goodnight and going to bed."
Steve Berg, owner of Berg Park Aerodrome in Midway, Ga. -- about a half-hour's drive from Richmond Hill -- said he has known Osbon for several years.
"I would describe him as the epitome of a professional pilot. My first thought when I heard it was, 'This can't be real,' and I wondered if some kind of terrorist guy slipped him a chemical that made him go bonkers," Berg said Wednesday.
Berg, who is in his 70s, is an aviation veteran who said he first soloed in 1956. He runs the Grass Strip Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of aviation history and to recruitment of future pilots.
Osbon at one time flew an L-19, a late-1940s vintage aircraft, he said. Osbon had flown out of Berg's airfield but did not hangar his plane there.
"He's such a nice, calm, stable man that this is bizarre," Berg said.
With Betty Darby