WASHINGTON — Before things got out of hand it was a typical annoyance that happens once a flight gets airborne: A passenger hit the recline button and sent his seat intimately close to the lap of the guy sitting behind him.

What followed wasn’t typical at all: a smack to the head, peacemakers diving about the cabin to intervene, tons of jet fuel being dumped over the ocean and a pair of Air Force F-16 fighter jets scrambling into the night skies.

It happened late Sunday just after a United Airlines Boeing 767 bound for Ghana with 144 passengers took off from Dulles International Airport.

Not long after the 10:44 p.m. departure for the overnight flight, the offending seat was lowered into the offended lap and the fight ensued. A flight attendant and another passenger jumped in between, and the pilot decided to return to Dulles to sort things out, according to sources familiar with the incident who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to provide details.

A 767 can take off with 16,700 gallons of fuel on board, and for the more than 5,000-mile flight to Accra, Ghana, it probably would have needed all of that. The full load of fuel weighs more than 57 tons, and although a 767 can get that weight airborne, it can’t land with it.

As they turned back to Dulles, the United pilots dumped an as yet undetermined amount of fuel into the Atlantic.

Audio transmissions indicate that two Air Force fighters were scrambled from Andrews Air Force Base at 11:03 p.m., just as the passenger plane re-entered Washington airspace. Since Sept. 11, 2001, fighters stand ready to respond situations like this one where passengers, who might be terrorists, cause trouble in flight.

Five minutes later the fighter escorts took up position 1,000 feet above the jetliner as it headed toward Dulles, sources said.

At 11:10 p.m. the controller asked about the status of the passenger and a voice from the cockpit replied: “The passenger is not secured at this time; the passenger has settled down though, but an assault has taken place, but at this time he is not secured.”

Members of the Dulles police force met the flight at the gate, said Rob Yingling, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. The police determined that no charges were warranted.

It was expensive, however.

In addition to the fuel cost — jet fuel was averaging $3.03 a gallon last month — the flight’s departure was delayed until the following morning. Given that no arrests meant no official record, the men’s identities were unknown. It was unclear whether they were on board when the flight finally departed, a United spokesman said.