An off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot, Joseph David Emerson, faces serious charges, including attempted murder and endangering an aircraft, after an alarming incident on board a flight. Emerson, riding in a cockpit jump seat, suddenly declared, “I’m not OK” to the flight captain and first officer, necessitating a swift response to prevent potential disaster, according to a federal court affidavit.
Emerson, 44, later explained to investigators that he had been sleep-deprived for 40 hours, battling depression, and had recently experimented with psychedelic mushrooms, though it remains uncertain whether he was under the influence during the flight. The incident involved Emerson attempting to disable the plane’s engines by pulling red handles, designed as an emergency safety measure to cut off fuel in the event of an engine fire.
The pilot managed to subdue Emerson’s actions after a physical struggle lasting about 30 seconds. Emerson subsequently calmed down and voluntarily left the cockpit. The plane was safely redirected to Portland, where Emerson was arrested and detained, awaiting arraignment.
Federal authorities have charged Emerson with interfering with a flight crew, a crime carrying a potential sentence of up to 20 years if convicted. An FBI Special Agent’s affidavit, supporting these charges, revealed Emerson’s conversation with Portland police. While Emerson denied taking medication, he admitted to experiencing depression six months prior and discussed his use of psychedelic mushrooms, stating it was his first time.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oregon, represented by Kevin Sonoff, emphasized that whether Emerson was under the influence of mushrooms during the flight remains a subject of their ongoing investigation. Additionally, both federal and state cases against Emerson will proceed simultaneously, at least initially.
Emerson’s Unsettling Transformation: The shocking events involving Joseph David Emerson deeply surprised friends and neighbors who knew him as a safety-conscious pilot and devoted family man. Longtime neighbor Karen Yee expressed her astonishment, describing Emerson as “very friendly” and perpetually optimistic. She remarked on the shocking nature of the charges and extended her sympathy to his family.
Adam Silverthorne, President of the NRI Flying Club, where Emerson previously served as a flying instructor, echoed similar sentiments. He regarded Emerson as an exemplary citizen and was taken aback by the turn of events.
Emerson’s family members, who were present during his hearing, did not offer comments, and no one responded to requests for comments at his residence. A law firm representing Emerson in federal court also declined immediate comment. According to Sonoff, a hearing for Emerson on the federal charges is expected to be scheduled for Thursday.
Emerson’s Aviation Background: Emerson occupied an extra “jump seat” in the cockpit of Horizon Air flight 2059, an Embraer 175, departing from Everett, Washington, en route to San Francisco. Alaska Airlines, the parent company of Horizon Air, disclosed that Emerson had been an integral part of the airline since August 2001, initially serving as a Horizon first officer. Subsequently, in June 2012, he transitioned to Virgin America as a pilot. Following Alaska’s acquisition of Virgin America in 2016, he returned to Alaska Airlines, rising to the rank of captain in 2019.
Throughout his aviation career, Emerson maintained compliance with mandated FAA medical certifications, with no records of denial, suspension, or revocation. Ross “Rusty” Aimer, President of Aero Consulting Experts, explained that jump-seat access was granted to off-duty U.S. pilots as a professional courtesy, permitting them to commute between their residences and work assignments. However, permission from the flight’s captain is mandatory to use the jump seat.
Emerson’s Drastic Transformation Mid-Flight: The FBI affidavit detailed the events during flight 2059, indicating that the flight’s pilot had never previously met Emerson, and there were no initial signs of distress. Emerson engaged in casual conversation about aircraft types and the weather with both pilots.
However, approximately 39 minutes into the flight, Emerson abruptly threw his headset and uttered, “I’m not okay.” He then grabbed the red engine shutoff handles, which, if fully activated, would have rendered the aircraft a glider within seconds. The pilots intervened promptly, preventing Emerson from executing this catastrophic action.
The flight attendants were informed that Emerson was behaving erratically, and he peacefully walked to the rear of the plane, claiming that he had been “kicked out of the flight deck” and needed to be restrained immediately. Flight attendants escorted him to a seat, secured his seat belt, and applied flex cuffs to his hands. As the plane descended towards Portland, Emerson attempted to reach an emergency exit handle and confessed that he had “tried to kill everybody” and had “messed everything up.”
In a recorded statement to the police, Emerson admitted to not having slept for 40 hours and experiencing a “nervous breakdown.” He attributed his actions to dehydration and exhaustion. Emerson also expressed confusion, stating that it felt like the pilots were not paying attention, and he believed he was dreaming, leading him to attempt pulling the emergency shut-off handles.
Emerson’s Current Status: Emerson, currently in custody without bail, exhibited signs of self-harm intentions after being booked, prompting authorities to place him under suicide watch. Deputy John Plock of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s office confirmed that Emerson remains on suicide watch.
Airline pilots typically undergo mental health assessments, and while rare, there have been documented cases of distressed pilots deliberately crashing planes. For instance, the co-pilot of a Germanwings jet intentionally crashed it into the French Alps in 2015, an EgyptAir co-pilot crashed a jet into the Atlantic Ocean in 1999, and an off-duty FedEx pilot attempted to hijack and crash a plane in 1994.
Emerson’s case continues to be investigated by both federal and state authorities as they strive to comprehend the events that unfolded on board flight 2059.