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A pilot allegedly tried to take down a plane. He’s blaming magic mushrooms

Off-duty pilot Joseph D. Emerson was charged with 83 counts of attempted murder after he allegedly tried to crash a plane mid-flight. The motive remains a mystery. Martha McHardy reports

Wednesday 25 October 2023 14:20 BST
Off-duty pilot took magic mushrooms 48 hours before trying to crash flight

For two decades, Joseph D Emerson had a successful career as an airline pilot. He joined the Alaska Air Group in 2001 as a first officer, before becoming a pilot in 2019.

But, on Sunday, something suddenly changed when the pilot was involved in an incident that has shocked people who know him to the core.

While travelling in the flight deck jump seat in the cockpit of a plane flying from Seattle to San Francisco, the 44-year-old allegedly attempted to cut off fuel to the engines.

He was subdued by the flight crew, arrested and hit with 167 charges, including 83 counts of first-degree attempted murder. He now also faces a federal charge of interfering with flight crew members and attendants.

No one was hurt in the incident, authorities said, but the FBI is working with the Port of Portland police to investigate the incident.

Many questions remain unanswered as to what led Mr Emerson to allegedly attempt to crash the plane mid-flight.

Here’s what we know so far:

What happened on the flight?

Authorities said Mr Emerson, who was off-duty at the time, was travelling in the flight deck jump seat in the cockpit when he suddenly tried to shut down both of the plane’s engines by pulling the fire extinguisher handles.

The 44-year-old was then subdued by flight crew as the captain and first officer intervened to keep the engines running. Mr Emerson was escorted by a flight attendant to the rear of the aircraft where he was placed in wrist restraints and belted into the aft jump seat, reportedly warning cabin crew: “You need to cuff me right now or it’s going to be bad,” according to affidavits.

According to Alaska Airlines, Mr Emerson also attempted to grab the handle of the emergency exit during the aircraft’s descent before being stopped by a flight attendant.

A flight attendant told police she heard Mr Emerson say: “I messed everything up,” and that he had stated that he had “tried to kill everybody.”

The flight, which was travelling from Seattle to San Francisco, was diverted to Portland, and all 80 passengers on board were able to board a new plane.

Passengers who were on board the plane told ABC News that they were not immediately alerted to what Alaska Airlines called the “security threat”, until a flight attendant told them over the speaker that there was “an emergency situation and the plane needed to land immediately”.

A worker cleans a jet bridge at Paine Field in Everett, Washington, before passengers board an Alaska Airlines flight (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Once the plane landed, police boarded the aircraft and arrested Mr Emerson, escorting him off the plane handcuffed.

Aubrey Gavello, one of the passengers on the plane, told Laura Coates Live the suspect was calm and cooperative as he was escorted off the plane.

Following the incident Mr Emerson was removed from service indefinitely and relieved from all duties at Alaska Airlines. The airline said it was now consulting with its partners in labour regarding his employment status.

Who is Joseph D Emerson?

Joseph D Emerson was taken into custody and hit with 167 charges, including 83 counts of first-degree attempted murder, 83 counts of reckless endangerment and one count of endangering an aircraft, according to authorities.

He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

He was also charged separately in federal court with one count of interfering with flight crew members and attendants.

His alleged motive for the incident remains unclear.

Prior to the incident Mr Emerson was a pilot with Alaska Airlines. According to the airline he joined Alaska Air Group as a Horizon First Officer in August 2001.

In June 2012, Mr Emerson left Horizon to join Virgin America as a pilot but became an Alaska Airlines First Officer following Alaska’s acquisition of Virgin America in 2016. He became an Alaska Airlines Captain in 2019.

Neighbours of the 44-year-old told The Daily Mail he lives with his wife and two young sons in California. He was described by neighbours as a “friendly” and “fantastic father”.

Joseph Emerson is charged with attempted murder (Joseph Emerson/Facebook)

“He plays with the kids all the time,” Karen Yee told the outlet.

“He’s just a great guy. He’s very understanding of other people,” she said.

“We just couldn’t imagine him doing anything to hurt someone. It’s very hard for us to believe that he would do anything intentionally like that,” she added. “I can’t fathom him doing anything that would hurt anyone.”

Meanwhile, her husband Ed Yee described the incident as “very shocking”.

“He seems like a really nice guy. Nothing abnormal about him,” he told CNN.

What was the motive?

It is not known why Mr Emerson allegedly attempted to crash the plane, though he reportedly told police following his arrest that he had had “a nervous breakdown” and had taken psychadelic mushrooms two days earlier.

According to a federal affidavit seen by The Independent, he told police he was experiencing a “nervous breakdown,” and had not slept in 40 hours. Mr Emerson explained to the officers: “I didn’t feel okay. It seemed like the pilots weren’t paying attention to what was going on. They didn’t…it didn’t seem right.”

He added: “I pulled both emergency shut-off handles because I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up,” court documents state.

He also told police he had struggled with depression for the past six months.

Meanwhile, Alaska Airlines said Mr Emerson did not have a history of medical issues.

“Throughout his career, Emerson completed his mandated FAA medical certifications in accordance with regulatory requirements, and at no point were his certifications denied, suspended or revoked,” Alaska Airlines said in a statement.

Alaska Airlines Pilot Arrested for Trying to Disable Engines

A Federal Aviation Administration pilot database also showed Mr Emerson received a medical clearance last month.

Alaska Air Group said in a statement that at no time during the check-in or boarding process did employees observe any signs of impairment that would have led them to prevent Mr Emerson from flying.

A police officer also noted that Mr Emerson did not appear to be “outwardly under the influence of intoxicants.”

Alaska Airlines said they are “deeply disturbed” by the 44-year-old’s actions.

Passengers on the plane said they were told by a flight attendant that Mr Emerson suffered a mental breakdown.

“After we did land and the gentleman was escorted off, the flight attendant got back on the speaker and said, plain and simple, ‘He had a mental breakdown. We needed to get him off the plane immediately’,’ Aubrey Gavello told ABC.

Records from the Federal Aviation Administration, which is supporting the law enforcement investigation, show the 44-year-old did not hold a certification to fly the ERJ 175 – the type of plane involved in Sunday’s incident.

Authorities do not believe the incident was an act of terrorism or ideologically-motivated violence, according to CNN.

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