An off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot who tried to shut off the engines during a flight on Sunday told investigators that he thought he was having a nervous breakdown at the time and had consumed psychedelic mushrooms, court documents said.
In an interview with the police after he was taken into custody, the pilot, Joseph D. Emerson, 44, said he had not slept in 40 hours and had been depressed for about six months, according to a federal criminal complaint.
The officer and Mr. Emerson “talked about the use of psychedelic mushrooms, and Emerson said it was his first time taking mushrooms,” the criminal complaint states.
“I pulled both emergency shut off handles because I thought I was dreaming and I just wanna wake up,” Mr. Emerson told the police, according to the criminal complaint.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon said on Tuesday that Mr. Emerson had been charged in federal court with one count of interfering with flight crew members and attendants.
Mr. Emerson has also been charged in Multnomah County Circuit Court in Portland, Ore., with 83 counts of attempted murder, 83 counts of reckless endangerment and one count of endangering an aircraft, court records show. He is to be arraigned on those charges on Tuesday afternoon.
It was not immediately clear if Mr. Emerson had a lawyer.
Mr. Emerson, of Pleasant Hill, Calif., has been a first officer and then a captain for more than two decades. Throughout his career, he has completed his required Federal Aviation Administration medical certifications, and his certifications have been never denied, suspended or revoked, Alaska Airlines said. Multnomah County court records indicate he does not have a criminal record.
On Sunday, Mr. Emerson was riding in a jump seat in the cockpit of an Alaska Airlines jet, an Embraer 175, the authorities said. The flight, operated by Horizon Air, a regional subsidiary, left Everett, Wash., about 5:23 p.m. bound for San Francisco, with four crew members and 80 passengers onboard. Professional pilots say it is common for them to ride in the cockpit jump seat while shuttling to and from work.
When the plane was about halfway between Astoria, Ore., and Portland, Mr. Emerson said, “I’m not OK,” and tried to grab two red handles that cut off fuel to the engines, the criminal complaint states.
After a brief physical struggle with the pilots, Mr. Emerson left the cockpit. Alaska Airlines said in a statement on Monday that, because “some residual fuel” remained in the line, “the quick reaction of our crew to reset the handles restored fuel flow and prevented fuel starvation.”
If Mr. Emerson had successfully pulled the engine shut-off handles down all the way, “then it would have shut down the hydraulics and the fuel to the engines, turning the aircraft into a glider within seconds,” the complaint states.
While walking to the back of the plane after he left the cockpit, Mr. Emerson said to a flight attendant, “You need to cuff me right now or it’s going to be bad,” according to the complaint. After Mr. Emerson was restrained in the back of the plane, he tried to grab the handle of an emergency exit door, but was stopped by a flight attendant, federal prosecutors said.
Another flight attendant heard Mr. Emerson “make statements such as, ‘I messed everything up’ and that ‘he tried to kill everybody,’” the complaint states.
Acting according to F.A.A. procedures and guidance from air traffic controllers, the crew diverted the plane to Portland International Airport, where it landed safely at about 6:30 p.m.
After Mr. Emerson was escorted off the plane, a passenger, Aubrey Gavello, told ABC News: “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.’”
In his interview with the police after his arrest, Mr. Emerson said: “I didn’t feel OK. It seemed like the pilots weren’t paying attention to what was going on,” the complaint states.
Mr. Emerson joined Horizon Airlines as a first officer in August 2001, Alaska Airlines said. In June 2012, he joined Virgin America as a pilot. When Alaska Airlines acquired Virgin in 2016, Mr. Emerson rejoined the company as a first officer for Alaska Airlines. In 2019, he became a captain, the company said.