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Off-duty pilot who tried to shut down plane’s engines mid-flight claims he was under the influence of psychedelic mushrooms

Joseph David Emerson faces 83 counts of attempted murder after Sunday’s incident en route to San Francisco

Joseph David Emerson
A Horizon airline plane in a file image.David Zalubowski (AP)
Luis Pablo Beauregard

A pilot named Joseph David Emerson was arrested Sunday afternoon in Portland after attempting to shut down the engines of a plane in mid-flight. On Tuesday, his first statements after his arrest were made public. The 44-year-old pilot, who was off duty at the time, told authorities he had taken psychedelic mushrooms. The affidavit filed alongside a federal complaint against Emerson also states that, after being subdued and taken to the back of the place, Emerson “turned towards an emergency exit door and tried to grab the handle” before being stopped by flight attendants. The Horizon Air flight made an emergency landing at Portland International Airport in Oregon. Emerson now faces a federal charge of interfering with a flight crew, in addition to numerous state charges that include 83 felony counts of attempted murder.

Emerson has been suspended indefinitely. Alaska Airlines says it is considering its options with lawyers. The pilot told federal authorities that he will not put up any obstacles in the legal process against him. On Tuesday afternoon, he was formally charged and appeared in a light blue prison uniform, with his hands cuffed behind his back and his head shaved.

The report from federal aviation authorities states that Emerson had symptoms of depression six months ago. As treatment, he began taking psychedelic mushrooms, an alternative therapy that has become popular in several cities on the West Coast of the United States. Psilocybin is illegal in most of the country, but states like Oregon have recently legalized it. A few days ago, the governor of California, Gavin Newsom, vetoed legislation that sought to decriminalize the possession of this type of psychedelics, which received approval from health regulators in 2018 for their use in some therapies.

Alaska Airlines — the owner of Horizon Air airline, where the incident occurred — said that Emerson approached the gate minutes before they closed to request a seat on flight 2059. “At no time during the check-in or boarding process did our Gate Agents or flight crew observe any signs of impairment that would have led them to prevent Emerson from flying,” Alaska Airlines said in a statement released Tuesday.

Joseph David Emerson, 44, is shown in the background at his first appearance before judicial authorities.
Joseph David Emerson, 44, is shown in the background at his first appearance before judicial authorities.HANDOUT (via REUTERS)

According to U.S. aeronautical authorities, Emerson was sitting in the cockpit’s “jump seat” behind the captain and first officer of the plane, which was making the journey between Everett, north of Seattle, and San Francisco. The pilots said that their colleague seemed fine as the flight began and chatted about mundane topics such as the weather and the plane they were traveling on.

Minutes after takeoff, when the plane was flying over the city of Astoria, Oregon, Emerson took off his headphones and threw them at the controls. “I’m not ok,” he said, according to the pilots’ testimony. Emerson then attempted to pull the fire extinguisher handles that serve as a firewall, shutting off the valves in the wings that bring fuel to the engine. “The Horizon Captain and First Officer quickly responded, and the crew secured the aircraft without incident,” said Alaska Airlines.

Emerson told authorities that he acted that way because he thought he was dreaming and wanted to wake up. One of the pilots struggled with him and grabbed his wrists, until Emerson calmed down. After the incident, Emerson was removed from the cockpit and taken to the back of the plane. The crew cuffed him and put him in one of the seats reserved for staff. On Tuesday, the airline stated that while seated at the back, when the plane was already making an emergency descent to Portland, Emerson tried to open the emergency exit, according to one of the flight attendants.

Emerson testified during his arrest that he had not slept in more than 40 hours and thought he was having a nervous breakdown. He told authorities that when he was in the cockpit, he thought that the pilots were not paying attention to the flight. At all times, Emerson cooperated with authorities and waived his right to an attorney.

Alaska Airlines recalled that the Federal Department of Transportation has a policy to prevent substance abuse of all air personnel. This involves random testing before or and after a flight, as well as reasonable suspicion testing of on-duty pilots and flight attendants. The airline said it has a zero-tolerance policy for any substance abuse. Emerson, however, was off duty, so he was not subject to drug testing.

Emerson was a resident of Pleasant Hill, a city east of San Francisco. The pilot’s neighbors were surprised after learning of the events. In his neighborhood, he is known as a family man and the father of two children. For five years, he had been teaching flight lessons as a certified instructor of the NRI Flying Club. “[He’]s a completely by-the-book, normal guy,” Adam Silverthorne, the president of the NRI Flying Club, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I don’t know what’s going on in his life.”

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