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    Off-duty Alaska pilot may have taken psychedelic mushrooms before trying to shut down engines

    An off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot accused of attempting to shut off a plane’s engines during a Horizon Air flight out of Everett had long been struggling with mental health issues and took psychedelic mushrooms about two days before the incident, investigators said in charging papers.

    Joseph Emerson, who was riding in a flight deck jump seat behind two Horizon pilots on the Sunday evening flight, is accused of attempting to activate a fire suppression system that would’ve cut the fuel supply to the plane’s engines. The San Francisco-bound plane made an emergency landing in Portland after Emerson, 44, was forced from the flight deck and handcuffed by a flight attendant.

    In statements to the Horizon flight crew and to police, Emerson described himself as suffering from depression and insomnia, claiming he believed he was dreaming when he attempted to disable the plane, an FBI special agent investigating the matter said in an affidavit. Emerson, the FBI agent continued, told police “it was his first time taking mushrooms.”

    The last time Emerson was on duty was Thursday, according to Alaska Airlines. Police contend he admitted to taking mushrooms Friday. Emerson, a California resident with ties to Seattle, has been a commercial airline pilot since 2001 and has flown with Alaska since 2016.

    Emerson was arrested when the plane landed at Portland International Airport and later booked into nearby Multnomah County Detention Center, where he remains jailed. 

    Federal and local authorities on Tuesday separately filed charges against Emerson, 44, who pleaded not guilty to 83 counts of attempted murder and other charges he faces in Oregon state court. He is expected to be arraigned later this week on a single federal charge of interfering with flight crew members and attendants.

    Statements released Tuesday by Oregon investigators, the FBI and the Alaska Air Group — the SeaTac-based company that owns both Alaska Airlines and regional carrier Horizon Air — as well as passenger accounts provided new insight into the chaotic, fraught scene above northwestern Oregon and fresh impressions of Emerson’s state of mind.

    “He looked so normal”

    Horizon Air flight 2059 departed Everett’s Paine Field at 5:23 p.m. Sunday carrying 84 people, including Emerson. Gate agents and flight crew did not notice any signs of impairment that would have kept Emerson from flying on the jump seat, an Alaska Airlines spokesperson said.

    It’s routine for airline employees, if seats are available, to hitch free rides back to their home bases after their shifts end. A pilot commuting in this way will often choose the jump seat to chat with the pilots flying. In Emerson’s case, a jump seat was the only one free on the plane.

    According to the FBI agent’s statement, Emerson made casual conversation with the Horizon crew until the flight was about halfway between Astoria, Ore., and Portland. Then, Emerson declared, “I’m not OK.”

    One of the Horizon pilots watched as Emerson reached up and grabbed two red handles, pulling them down. The handles would have cut the fuel supply to the engines and activated the aircraft fire suppression system used to extinguish engine fires. 

    If Emerson had successfully pulled the handles, the plane would have turned into a glider within seconds, according to the FBI agent’s statement. In a statement, Alaska said “engine power was not lost.”

    After a struggle with the pilots that lasted approximately 30 seconds, Emerson exited the cockpit. The pilots switched off the plane’s autopilot and diverted to Portland.

    The union representing Horizon pilots, Teamsters Local 1224’s Airline Professionals Association, said the flight crew showed poise, calm and professionalism through the incident and the hours that followed. Pilots were the last line of defense between Horizon Air and a catastrophic incident, the union said.

    Passengers Theresa Stelter, Matthew Dolan and Paul Stephen said Emerson walked alone down the aisle, passing their rows unescorted.

    “We’re lucky that he didn’t take any of his sudden and unexpected actions at that moment,” Stelter said in an interview Tuesday.

    Stelter said a flight attendant then announced with a shaky voice that the plane would be diverting to Portland. The Embraer E175 began a steep, bumpy descent.

    Dolan, Stelter’s partner, was reading a book and looked up as Emerson walked past. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary in Emerson, Dolan said. He was expressionless and walking with confidence.

    “He looked so normal,” Dolan said.

    Five to 10 minutes after the first announcement, the flight attendant told passengers that the plane was fine but a passenger had had a medical emergency. Dolan said he thought it was strange that the flight attendant didn’t ask for a doctor or nurse onboard to help.

    The cabin lights dimmed, Stelter said, before another announcement that there had been an incident in the cockpit.

    “They lowered the lights, which was a little bit odd to me in an emergency situation, but I assumed it was to keep us calm,” Stelter said. “Now I assume it was to keep him calm.”

    As he headed to the back of the plane, Emerson told a flight attendant he needed to be handcuffed “or it’s going to be bad,” the FBI agent said in court papers. Flight attendants then cuffed him and secured him to a seat in the rear of the plane.

    During the flight’s descent, the agent continued, Emerson tried to grab the handle of the emergency exit, but a flight attendant stopped him by placing her hands on top of his.

    The flight attendant later told investigators Emerson said he “messed everything up” and that “he tried to kill everybody,” according to the FBI agent’s statement. 

    Emerson told Port of Portland police and a flight attendant that his best friend had recently died and asked the flight attendant when “this nightmare would end,” according to charging papers filed by the Multnomah County prosecutors. A police officer said Emerson did not “outwardly” seem intoxicated.

    The flight landed in Portland at 6:26 p.m. Some passengers were given travel vouchers and ultimately sent on to San Francisco hours later. Stephen said he was offered a $300 flight credit, which he said was too low based on the experience, while Stelter said she wasn’t initially given a voucher because they bought the tickets on a third-party website.

    Stelter faulted Alaska for, in her view, failing to communicate with passengers.

    “I found it jarring to learn from news articles with the rest of the public, without anyone contacting us and explaining what went on or offering to help,” Stelter said.

    “Skillful actions”

    Taken into custody at the airport, Emerson is alleged to have told police he was having a “nervous breakdown,” that he had not slept in 40 hours and had been suffering from depression for six months. He felt dehydrated and tired, according to the FBI investigator’s statement. 

    “I didn’t feel OK,” he told police, according to the FBI agent. “It seemed like the pilots weren’t paying attention to what was going on.’”

    Emerson then said he pulled the emergency handles because he thought he was dreaming and wanted to wake up. According to investigators, he noted that “it was his first time taking mushrooms.”

    The U.S. Department of Transportation has a mandatory drug-testing program for on-duty crew members that is administered by all airlines, including Alaska and Horizon. On-duty pilots and flight attendants can be tested randomly before or after a flight. DOT declined to say when Emerson was last tested because it is considered confidential medical information. 

    A mushroom trip usually lasts four to six hours, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. But the substances can remain in a person’s body up to 48 hours after taking it and drug byproducts can be detected for 90 days, according to experts interviewed for an Insider article.

    “I’m not fighting any charges you want to bring against me, guys,” Emerson told police following his arrest, according to the federal criminal complaint.

    With San Francisco as his crew base for Alaska, Emerson lives in Pleasant Hill, Calif., about 30 miles northeast of the city, according to public records. Previously, when he was flying for Horizon, he lived in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood between 2003 and 2008, property records show. He does not appear to have a criminal record.

    Some who knew Emerson before the Sunday incident described their shock at the allegations against him.

    “No sign he was off. Nothing,” Karen Yee, a neighbor whose grandchildren play with Emerson’s two elementary school kids, told The (San Jose) Mercury News. “He is everything you would want to have in a good neighbor. We see him over the fence and on walks. Great guy. Great family.”

    Mark Angelos, a senior flight instructor at the NRI Flying Club in Concord, Calif., who has known Emerson for 10 years, told The Associated Press that Emerson actually designed the club’s safety program.

    Angelos said that when he and other club members initially heard the news, they couldn’t believe it was Emerson, a person they saw as a loving family man.

    “It just couldn’t have been our Joe,” he told the AP.

    Alaska removed Emerson from service indefinitely on Sunday, according to the spokesperson, and is consulting with the Air Line Pilots Association, the union representing Alaska pilots, “regarding his employment status.”

    “Our crew responded without hesitation to a difficult and highly unusual situation, and we are incredibly proud and grateful for their skillful actions,” Alaska said previously.

    Alaska said late Monday that “throughout his career, Emerson completed his mandated FAA medical certifications … and at no point were his certifications denied, suspended or revoked.”

    Police statements match Alaska’s understanding of what happened based on debriefings with the flight crew, a company spokesperson said Tuesday.

    Emerson will likely be arraigned on the federal charge later this week at U.S. District Court in Portland. That case will be presented to a grand jury to determine if there’s sufficient evidence for a felony prosecution.

    In addition to 83 counts of attempted murder, Multnomah County prosecutors have charged Emerson with 83 counts of misdemeanor reckless endangerment and one count of endangering an aircraft, a felony.

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