Portland, Oregon – October 25, 2023
An alarming incident involving an off-duty airline pilot has left Portland, Oregon, in shock. Joseph David Emerson, a 44-year-old pilot, who was seated in an extra cockpit seat on an Alaska Airlines Horizon Air flight, attempted to cut the engine’s midflight, causing panic among passengers and the flight crew. Charging documents have provided insight into this unsettling event.
According to these documents, Emerson, who was authorized to ride in the cockpit’s jump seat as an off-duty pilot, uttered the words “I’m not OK” just before trying to manipulate the aircraft’s engine controls. In response, Oregon’s state prosecutors pressed 83 charges of attempted murder against him, while federal prosecutors accused him of obstructing a flight crew, which could result in a maximum prison term of 20 years.
Emerson later confessed to the authorities that he had been struggling with depression and had consumed psychedelic mushrooms approximately 48 hours before the incident. Surprisingly, he claimed not to be intoxicated during the interview. Alaska Airlines confirmed that neither gate agents nor the flight crew had detected any signs of impairment that might have prevented him from boarding the flight.
In the context of this incident, it’s worth noting that while psilocybin mushrooms are illegal in most parts of the country, Oregon had legalized them for adult use, and the “Food and Drug Administration” designated psilocybin as a “breakthrough therapy” in 2018, indicating its potential for treating mental health conditions and substance use disorders.
Emerson, an Alaska Airlines pilot hailing from Pleasant Hill, California, was arrested after the flight crew reported his attempt to shut down the engines on a “Horizon Air flight from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco.” The plane was safely diverted to “Portland” with over 80 passengers on board.
The incident occurred as the plane was between Astoria, Oregon, and Portland. Emerson, after engaging in casual conversation with the captain and first officer, suddenly attempted to activate the plane’s fire suppression system and cut off fuel to its engines. A brief struggle ensued, but Emerson eventually left the cockpit.
Swift action was taken by the flight attendants, who restrained Emerson and placed him in the rear of the aircraft. However, as the plane descended, he attempted to open an emergency exit, but a vigilant flight attendant prevented him from doing so.
In the aftermath of this incident, Alaska Airlines relieved Emerson of all duties. His attorney, Noah Horst, did not immediately make any statements following the hearing and did not respond to requests for comment.
The captain and first officer reported that Emerson had muttered the words “I’m not OK” just before attempting to manipulate the controls. He seemed calm as he left the cockpit and approached a flight attendant, expressing the need to be handcuffed. He made alarming statements about messing everything up and trying to kill everybody. In an admission of guilt, Emerson requested to waive his right to an attorney, stating that he was not going to fight any charges brought against him. He described his actions as a result of a nervous breakdown and claimed that he thought he was dreaming.
Pilots are required to undergo psychological screening as part of their regularly scheduled medical exams. Instances of crashes attributed to deliberate actions taken by pilots have occurred in the past. Emerson had recently taken his FAA examination in September, but the charging documents reveal that he had been dealing with depression for an extended period.
Emerson will remain in state custody until his initial appearance in “U.S. District Court” in Portland, as confirmed by the U.S. attorney’s office.
The allegations against Emerson have left colleagues and acquaintances in disbelief. Mark Angelos, a senior flight instructor at the NRI Flying Club in Concord, California, who has known Emerson for over a decade, initially believed that Horizon Air was conducting an emergency drill. They struggled to reconcile the allegations with their perception of Emerson as a family man who loved his children.
In this disturbing incident, a seemingly ordinary off-duty pilot’s actions have raised questions about mental health and the challenges that aviation professionals face. As legal proceedings continue, the aviation industry will undoubtedly examine its procedures and protocols to ensure the safety and well-being of all passengers and crew.