© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: An Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-900ER airplane prepares to land at Vancouver’s international airport in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Ben Nelms/File Photo
By David Shepardson and Steve Gorman
(Reuters) -An off-duty pilot charged with trying to disable the engines of an Alaska Airlines jet in flight told police afterward he was suffering a nervous breakdown, had taken psychedelic mushrooms two days earlier and had not slept in 40 hours, court documents showed on Tuesday.
Joseph David Emerson (NYSE:), 44, an Alaska Airlines pilot, was riding as a standby employee passenger in the cockpit “jump seat” of Sunday’s flight, en route from Everett, Washington, to San Francisco, when the airborne altercation occurred, authorities said.
After a brief scuffle inside the flight deck with the captain and first officer, Emerson ended up restrained by members of the cabin crew and was arrested in Portland, Oregon, where the flight was diverted and landed safely.
He was charged in Oregon state court on Tuesday with 83 counts of attempted murder – one for every person aboard the plane besides himself – and a single count of endangering an aircraft.
He pleaded not guilty to those charges at a brief arraignment on Tuesday in Multnomah County Circuit Court in Portland, and was ordered to remain in custody pending a detention hearing to be held within the next five days.
Emerson was charged separately in federal court with one count of interfering with flight crew members and attendants.
The criminal complaints in both cases were filed with sworn affidavits from investigators outlining a harrowing sequence of events that came close to shutting down hydraulic operation and fuel to both engines of the twin-jet aircraft, an Embraer 175.
Alaska Airlines reported no blemishes in Emerson’s employment record. And the head of a California flying club he once belonged to said Sunday’s alleged behaviour was completely at odds with the meticulous, mild-mannered family man he remembered Emerson to be.
MENTAL CRISIS SUGGESTED
According to the affidavits, Emerson told police after his arrest that he was suffering a mental crisis during the incident and had struggled with depression for the past six months.
The court documents said he also told police that he had taken “magic mushrooms” for the first time, ingesting them about 48 hours before boarding the plane.
Alaska Air (NYSE:) Group, the airline’s parent company, said in a statement on Tuesday 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 Emerson from flying.
Alaska Airlines Flight 2059 was operated by the group’s regional subsidiary Horizon Air, the company said.
Court documents gave no indication of whether investigators had confirmed any drug or alcohol use by the suspect, though one of the arresting officers told investigators that Emerson did not appear “outwardly under the influence of intoxicants.”
Medical research has shown that psilocybin, a naturally occurring hallucinogen found in certain mushroom varieties, to be beneficial in treating anxiety, depression and other mental disorders. A ballot measure approved by voters in 2020 made Oregon the first U.S. state to decriminalize psilocybin and to legalize its supervised therapeutic use for adults.
COCKPIT AND CABIN STRUGGLES
The two pilots who were at the controls of Flight 2059 told investigators, according to affidavits, that Emerson had started out chatting with them casually, before suddenly hurling his radio headset across the cockpit and saying, “I’m not OK.”
He then reached up and grabbed two red-colored fire-suppression handles, pulling them downward, the affidavits said.
A scuffle ensued as one of the two pilots quickly clutched Emerson’s wrist to keep him from fully engaging the handles, while the other declared an in-flight emergency, before Emerson abruptly quieted down again and left the cockpit.
The flight crew later told investigators that had Emerson managed to fully deploy the shut-off handles, the plane was “seconds away” from being turned into a glider.
In his interview with police, the affidavits said, Emerson acknowledged pulling the handles, saying he did so because he felt like he was trying to awaken from a dream.
After leaving the cockpit, he was escorted to the back of the plane, placed in a flight attendant’s seat and was fitted with handcuffs, having warned the cabin crew: “You need to cuff me right now or it’s going to be bad,” according to affidavits.
Even as he was under restraint, the court documents said, Emerson tried to grab an emergency exit handle, but a flight attendant stopped him by placing her hands over his and making conversation to distract him.
Another flight attendant was quoted as telling authorities she overheard Emerson say: “I messed everything up,” and that he had stated that he had “tried to kill everybody.”
Emerson joined Alaska Air Group as a Horizon first officer in August 2001 and became a captain at Alaska Airlines in 2019, the carrier said, adding that “at no point were his certifications denied, suspended or revoked.”
A Federal Aviation Administration pilot database showed Emerson received a medical clearance last month. Aviators are expected to self-report any mental health conditions.